ALL THINGS ALICE: INTERVIEW WITH TERESA LIN, PART 2

As an amateur scholar and die-hard enthusiast of everything to do with Alice in Wonderland, I have launched a podcast that takes on Alice’s everlasting influence on pop culture. As an author who draws on Lewis Carroll’s iconic masterpiece for my Looking Glass Wars universe, I’m well acquainted with the process of dipping into Wonderland for inspiration.

The journey has brought me into contact with a fantastic community of artists and creators from all walks of life—and this podcast will be the platform where we come together to answer the fascinating question: “What is it about Alice?”

For this episode, it was my great pleasure to have Teresa Lin join me as my guest for Part 2 of our deep dive into our creative process! Read on to explore our conversation and check out the whole series on your favorite podcasting platform to listen to the full interview.


Frank Beddor
Welcome to the show everybody. Happy Valentine’s Day. Given that it’s the day of celebration for love and relationships, I thought I would invite my beautiful bride to join me today so we can have a chat about all things Alice and some of the relationships that are significant both in The Looking Glass Wars and in the musical that we’re developing. Welcome to the show again, Teresa.

Teresa Lin
Hi, it’s good to be back. Speaking about Valentine’s and love, love is such a complicated thing. It certainly is in The Looking Glass Wars and the musical. I think we all want to lean into that because love can be complicated. 

FB
Complication makes for good melodrama. Let’s talk about Alice Liddell and the Alyss that I created in The Looking Glass Wars and the relationships from real life and fiction. One of the things I wanted to talk about is in The Looking Glass Wars Alyss Heart meets Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria’s fourth son and he fancies her because she’s famous from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, famous for being Lewis Carroll’s muse. At the same time, she meets Reginald Hargreaves, who is a real-life figure. He was actually the real-life Alice Liddell’s husband. He was a cricket star and, in the novel, he fancies Alyss so there is a natural conflict for her love between these two men. But in the novel, I wrote Prince Leopold as a bit arrogant and not all that desirable, too much of an aristocrat. 

When you and I started talking about the TV show and the musical, you referenced The Notebook as an example, because in The Notebook, the two men, Noah and Lon, who are vying for the lead character, Allie, are both very, very desirable and likable. So there’s a real decision and there’s a real conflict. In The Looking Glass Wars, once Alyss is deciding if she should marry for status, it’s not very romantic.

Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams as Noah and Allie, embracing in the rain, in the 2004 romance film "The Notebook".

TL
We were really trying to capture what would make a great love story. 

FB
Why would she fall in love with Leopold? What were his desirable qualities? 

TL
Also, what would be the real conflict for them? What would be the opposition to their relationship? 

FB
In The Looking Glass Wars, the opposition came from Queen Victoria because Leopold was marrying a commoner and someone who had been a street urchin. Also, and this is something you conceived of, Alyss is much more proactive in the TV show and the musical in terms of helping other orphans. 

TL
For the show, what we really wanted to hone in on was Alyss being a champion of people who are down on their luck or had no voice and had no power, because she felt something like that in her own story, deep in her DNA from being kicked out of Wonderland. She feels this injustice and her destiny is to be the person who fights for these people. I think to have her embody these qualities at a time when women didn’t have much of a voice, they couldn’t own property, they were property themselves in the Victorian age, and for her to pursue love, on her own terms, was something that was really out of time for that story. For her to come in and be the one who chooses the man rather than the man choosing her feels really in line with our modern values.

FB
The other interesting thing was the solution that you had regarding the love triangle. Alyss returns to Wonderland and it turns out the love of her life is Dodge Anders. While she’s in our world, she has strong dreams and visualizations of a destined love. 

Illustration of Dodge Anders, in a military uniform and holding a sword, by artist Vance Kovacs from Frank Beddor's "The Looking Glass Wars".
Queen Alyss Heart sitting on a red throne in a pink dress with a long, ruffled train by artist Andrea Wickland from Frank Beddor's "The Looking Glass Wars".

TL
When she was young, she had these experiences with Dodge of being able to run off and have their own adventures and to have someone who was really a close friend and confidant, and someone she felt would risk his life for her. So I think that was in her body and memory, even as a dream that she was not supposed to be having. 

FB
So in the novel, she returns to Wonderland and she’s reunited with Dodge, who’s angry and bitter. He’s struggling with what happened during Redd’s coup. 

TL
He didn’t even know whether Alyss was alive or dead. 

FB
He did hold on to the belief that she was alive somewhere but it takes a minute for them to rekindle their friendship and find their romantic interest as adults and it’s something that I think people wish I had written more about. But what I wanted you to mention is the solution that you had for the love triangle in the musical. 

TL
We came up against the story conflict of Alyss having two different love interests, one in our world, Prince Leopold, and one in Wonderland, Dodge. What kind of choice would she be making? We circled this idea of the doppelgangers and that there was a version of ourselves in Wonderland that exists in our world and maybe other worlds. But when Alyss returns to Wonderland, the reveal is that Dodge and Leopold are the same person and they would be played by the same actor. They would be doppelgangers of each other. 

FB
I love that idea. It also gives Prince Leopold a moment in our world to tell Alyss, “It’s okay. It’s your destiny.” In essence, he sets her free, even though there’s a version of him that we’re going to meet in Wonderland, unbeknownst to his character. 

Photograph of Alice Liddell, wearing a white dress and surrounded by foliage, taken by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1872.
Photograph of Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, son of Queen Victoria, sitting in a chair and wearing a kilt and livery collars, taken by W&D Downey photographers in 1872.

TL
I find that deeply romantic. One of the things that we researched when we were working on these projects was a possible real-life romantic relationship between Alice Liddell and Prince Leopold. It’s easy to construe that Queen Victoria would have been against their courtship. But when Leopold married and had his first child, he named her Alice. 

FB
And when Alice Liddell married Reginald Hargreaves, their first son was named Leopold.

TL
That just gave me goosebumps.

FB
It’s Valentine’s Day, that should give you goosebumps.

I think that it is really interesting and hopefully, when we get either the musical or the TV show made, it will be an effective moment. So those of you listening are getting a little preview of one of the shows.

Also, Leopold was a bit sickly. He had haemophilia, which is a bleeding disorder where your blood doesn’t clot properly. He inherited it from Queen Victoria. His daughter, Princess Alice, was a carrier of the disease and his grandson Rupert, died from it. 

TL
It lends a sense of fragility and vulnerability to his character, which I thought was really sweet and in line with Alyss being the warrior princess. She was, in essence, his protector. It was also the reason that he couldn’t go back to Wonderland and fight with Alyss.

FB
Because he was worried he might get cut if he went through the Looking-glass. 

That’s the central love story, for which I think we will continue to find moments. But there’s also the familial love story between Queen Genevieve and Princess Rose, who became Queen Redd and there’s also the story between Hatter and his brother Dalton.

The relationships between the two sisters and the two brothers carry a lot of emotional power, because of the love and the betrayal. So you have both sides of this coin.

Illustration of a younger Queen Redd, wearing a red bodysuit and a tattered red cape, from Frank Beddor's "The Looking Glass Wars".
Illustration of Queen Genevieve, wearing a white formal dress, from Frank Beddor's "The Looking Glass Wars".

TL
The familial relationships are always hard to tease out because you have the loyalty to family, then you have, for them, the loyalty to the nation and to their queens. Then they also have their own private feelings about who they choose to love and how that complicates things if that doesn’t fall in the right domain. 

FB
In terms of the development of, one hopes, a very long-running show…

TL
There are a lot of story and relational threads that could feed into the complicated conflict set up in our stories. 

FB
For folks that have not read the graphic novels, I introduce Hatter’s brother, Dalton, and there is an entire backstory of Dalton having a relationship with Queen Redd, or Rose when they were younger. 

There’s just a lot to work with. There are multiple timelines and multiple characters to play with and we don’t have to follow the structure of the novels. We can take prequel stories and sequel stories and we can feather those threads into season one with the hopes that we do a good job and it’s long-running. 

TL
Bringing it all back to love, I think the best love stories are the ones where you see the characters fighting for their love. They have to go through this long, arduous emotional journey of really fighting and proving themselves and testing the love. I think we have all of those pieces in our story threads for all the characters. They have a lot of opposition. There’s a lot of conflict before they ever get to a place where they are reunited or there’s peace in the land or their hearts. 

FB
I think we can really stretch out the tension between Alyss and Dodge when Alyss returns and she’s trying to find her footing as the destined queen, the warrior, and Dodge’s eventual wife. For anybody who has read Crossfire, the graphic novel, we see that the two of them are married and it’s be careful what you wish for. Ruling is difficult and ruling as a couple is also difficult. But their love is strong. 

TL
How would you describe the relationship between Hatter and Alyss? Although it’s not a romantic love, he’s her sworn protector, her guardian, and very much a father figure. What does that feel like for you, when you think of those two characters?

Illustration of Princess Alyss Heart and Hatter Madigan being separated as they travel through the Pool of Tears by artist Ben Templesmith from the graphic novel "Hatter M: Far From Wonder".

FB
The father figure aspect is really important because she grew up with him for those first seven years. They had a very playful relationship, she would tease him quite a bit. Hatter, as a Milliner, is meant to marry within the Milliner race and, of course, he falls in love with somebody outside of that race. So, being in this forbidden relationship, he can’t envision having a son or a daughter of his own. 

TL
By the time he’s catapulted into our world, and he’s lost Alyss, his whole journey and his whole focal point over 13 years has been finding Alyss. I thought that was really, really strong in your graphic novels. Even though he’s come across all of these romantic relationships throughout time and in different places on Earth, his primary focus is to find Alyss. Yet when he does find Alyss, he’s rejected by her. I find that so interesting. I think about the internal turmoil that he has to face. He’s found his charge, his lost child, but she rejects him. That’s very rich.

FB
I often think of Hatter as Liam Neeson in Taken except his skill set is not as well honed, and it takes a very long time. But I don’t think Liam Neeson would be very happy if his daughter was like, “I’m fine. I’ve got this, Dad.”

On one of the other podcasts, I talked about not having a moment in the novel where Hatter confronts Alyss and she commands him to leave, which would have been a really great scene to write. I just thought that he would forcibly take her and forgot she’s really his superior. 

TL
I don’t know, I think after 13 years lost in our world, and then finally finding her, he’s not losing her again, no matter what she commands. 

FB
Thank you for that. 

TL
There is no way he’s leaving her side. 

FB
That’s what I thought. But then it is a complicated and interesting scene that creates a lot of tension and a lot of turmoil. 

TL
And also, the complications of them finding each other again, as people. She’s grown up now. She’s no longer a seven-year-old child. There’s a relationship that they both have to earn and there’s trust they both have to come back to because when Alyss got catapulted into our world, she was looking for him for a long time and then slowly had to let go of her hope. 

Illustration of Queen Alyss Heart wearing ornate plate armor and holding a broadsword, by artist Vance Kovacs from Frank Beddor's "The Looking Glass Wars".
Illustration of Hatter Madigan wielding a wrist blade and standing in front of the suit family symbol, by artist Ben Templesmith from the "Hatter M" graphic novel series.

FB
And he’s only holding onto the seven-year-old Alyss. That’s the image that he has but she’s a completely different person, finding herself in our world for 13 years. 

TL
Back to love and Valentine’s and relationships, this underscores for me how we’re always evolving and we’re always changing in relationships. You can’t pinpoint a place in time and say, “You’re not the same person I met 20 years ago. How come you’ve changed?”

FB
Well, how have you changed since we met 10 years ago? 

TL
That’s hard to describe. “Where have I stayed the same?” would be the better question.

I definitely feel more expanded and more aware and hopefully more conscious. Definitely in my sense of relational self. I feel like the more that you learn about yourself and about how life is the less you take things personally. You realize that everyone’s on their journey, everyone’s on their path, and you can’t fix it for anyone else. That is true of Hatter and Alyss. She has to do the work and he has to do the work. 

FB
Well, I am happy to be on this journey with you and to get the opportunity to wish you a happy Valentine’s. 

TL
Thank you, my love.

FB
I love you very much.

TL
Your favorite word, Ditto.

FB
Thanks, everybody. Happy Valentine’s to everybody out there listening. 

We will be back with, what I’m gonna call “All Things Creative,” where Teresa and I are going to talk about some of the other projects we’re working on and the creative process that we go through and give everybody a sneak peek at some other shows and books and things we’re working on. Take care.

TL
Take care.


For the latest updates & news about All Things Alice,  please read our blog and subscribe to our podcast!

ALL THINGS ALICE: INTERVIEW WITH SARA ELLA

As an amateur scholar and die-hard enthusiast of everything to do with Alice in Wonderland, I have launched a podcast that takes on Alice’s everlasting influence on pop culture. As an author who draws on Lewis Carroll’s iconic masterpiece for my Looking Glass Wars universe, I’m well acquainted with the process of dipping into Wonderland for inspiration.

The journey has brought me into contact with a fantastic community of artists and creators from all walks of life—and this podcast will be the platform where we come together to answer the fascinating question: “What is it about Alice?”

For this episode, it was my great pleasure to have Sara Ella join me as my guest on this episode! Read on to explore our conversation and check out the whole series on your favorite podcasting platform to listen to the full interview.

Mixed graphic including logo for "All Things Alice" podcast, the covers of "The Wonderland Trials," "The Looking Glass Illusion," and "Coral", and an image of author Sara Ella.

Frank Beddor 
You’re the first author that I’ve spoken with that has also worked in Wonderland. Reading your book and seeing all these parallels to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as well as some of the things that I ripped off of was delightful. I’m very excited to chat with you today.

Sara Ella 
I’m so honored. I’ve been a fan of yours for years. Ages ago, my library introduced me to The Looking Glass Wars and I was so excited because I was so drawn to anything Alice so I’m just really excited to be here. Thank you for having me. 

FB
I’m talking with Sara Ella, the writer of the Curious Realities series. Why do you think Alice has lasted for so long? You’ve been a longtime fan so I’m curious if you’ve identified some of the specifics of what attracts us to Alice decade after decade.

SE
I think in general, children’s stories seem to last the test of time. My librarian once told me that children’s stories are the ones that last because they resonate with us as children, but they also resonate with us as adults. For Alice, her story is one that we all relate to. We all want to escape. We all want to avoid growing up and adulthood. But her story is so interesting because she doesn’t want adulthood, she wants nonsense, she wants to stay a little girl and be silly. Then when she’s put in the world that she’s imagined for herself, she doesn’t want to be there. She can’t really be satisfied. Especially with portal stories, where someone portals into another world, that’s something that we all want. We all want to escape. That’s why we read. That’s why we love film. That little bit of time of escape is something that we can all relate to and just the reminder of imagination and what a huge role that that plays as well.

FB
I’m glad you brought that up because I was very jealous of the Wonder gene idea. I thought it was very clever. I also thought it was similar thematically to what I was playing with with imagination. I often had people asking me, “Where did this idea come from?” I would say, “Well, it popped into my imagination.” Then I thought imagination can be a real power for people to think about what their life can be. Then when I was reading your book I came across the Wonder gene, which gives you magical abilities. Imagination, curiosity, and wonder are all very much childhood expressions that we lose or it starts to fade for some of us as adults. I often want to get back to that and being a writer, you have to live in that space of curiosity and wonder and imagination. I think what you did with the Wonder gene is very specific, but yet it’s in a grander thematic way. Can you talk about how you use wonder, curiosity, and imagination in your work?

Author Sara Ella holding a jar full of lights.

SE
I’m a huge Disney person. I love to go to the parks and what Walt Disney did in making Disneyland and Disney World so different from other theme parks. This idea of when you’re in a certain land, you can’t see the other land, and there are certain ways that Disneyland was built so you can’t see the outside world. I really love that idea of being fully immersed. So I thought how can I do this with Alice? I wanted to do something different with how she gets into Wonderland. How can I make this my own? How can I make this fit into this dystopian world I’ve created? And imagination plays a part in it. And I think there’s always that question of whether is Alice dreaming. Does she really experience this? We kind of see that in The Looking Glass Wars where Lewis Carroll has written this story and Alice is just so mad. “This is my history and you are pretending it’s some silly children’s story.” There’s always that question for the reader, is this real? 

That’s what I wanted to explore. What does it mean for something to be real? Does it mean that it has to physically be there? Is it something that we see in our mind? Is it something we imagine? Is it something we believe in? All of those things culminated in the idea of the Wonder gene and this idea of virtual visual reality that Wonders have created for themselves. I love stories like Ready Player One or Warcross by Marie Lu and the idea of virtual reality. Even in Harry Potter, we see Dumbledore tell Harry just because it’s inside your head, why does that mean it should be any less real? I think that’s what’s so fun about Alice. As much as we, as authors, try to convince our readers the story is real, there’s always that question about if Alice really experienced this. Or was she imagining it the whole time? But also, if she was, why should that make it any less real?

FB
You did a great job of creating those two realities within one overall reality that we all relate to. I also thought it was clever to have the Queen of England be the unimaginative, normal person, and then the Queen of Hearts be the real powerhouse in the underground or parallel. 

Let’s start with the two worlds and the logic that you came up with so we could all suspend our disbelief. How much did you think about that? The world creation you’ve done is time-consuming and it has to be right otherwise it’s problematic for the reader.

SE
I’m a discovery writer. The most frustrating part of the writing process for me is figuring out the logic behind my magic system and trying to make it all fit and work. I always see the characters very clearly in my mind and can kind of follow their storyline. But making sure the magic system makes sense is something I struggle with. With creating Wonderland on top of England or London, I played off the idea of what can Wonders see that those without the Wonder gene can’t see. I was inspired a lot by different stories. Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven, for example, where he has two children who go to this magical preserve and they can’t see any of these magical creatures until they drink this special fairy milk. So it’s playing around the idea about what is unseen to us until we have some kind of special ability or special understanding or special knowledge. We see it in Harry Potter where the muggles don’t see a lot of the things going on in the wizarding world and until Harry’s eyes are opened to it, he doesn’t see it either. I guess it would be like the Chosen One trope. There are certain tropes that are repeated but I think we’re so drawn to repeat those tropes because we all want to be the Chosen One, we all want to be Alice. We want to be the ones who can see into the special world of Wonderland. Then I ended up adding what I call a pinch of science fiction because, in a sense, all science fiction is somewhat grounded in fantasy, just at different levels. We see that with Star Wars. So I thought, how can I make up my own science about how the superheroes come to be? Why are superheroes able to do what they do? In my mind, Alice is a kind of superhero. Those with the Wonder gene are able to see something that others cannot see. So I played off that and it just takes a lot of rewriting and good editors to make sure it all comes together.

The Wonderland Trials" and "The Looking Glass Illusion" books by Sara Ella on a white and blue blanket surrounded by playing cards and chess pieces.

FB
When you’re working on a movie, you’re always looking for some sort of IP that’s recognizable. Some of the most successful movies are stories familiar to people but told in unfamiliar ways. That is certainly what you’ve accomplished with the Curious Realities series. You did a reimagining of The Little Mermaid as well. Why do you think familiar stories told in unfamiliar ways constantly attract people?

SE
I think we’re drawn to things that are familiar, we’re drawn to things that are nostalgic to us. It’s why I never tire of hearing Cinderella. I never, ever tire of hearing about the girl who overcame cruelty and stayed kind through it all. That’s something that resonates very deeply with me. It’s something I’m really drawn to. We’re all inspired by something. Whether we’re retelling a familiar tale or we’re reimagining it or we’re coming up with something totally new, we’re still going to draw from different inspirations. I think there’s that nostalgia aspect. Then it resonates with people who are drawn to anything and everything Alice in Wonderland, but then we’re also introducing readers who maybe would never bother to pick up the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I love that aspect, too, of inviting a new reader in and they might now be introduced to other versions of Wonderland or to the original, and be drawn to that. So I think on both sides, you have those who are looking for something new and they really want to like these classic stories, or these fairy tales, but they’ve just never resonated with them. Then finding that version of the story that finally connects with them is a really fun challenge. 

FB
Because you’re writing for a contemporary audience, you’re talking about contemporary themes, and you want to bring people in. You’ve done that with The Wonderland Trials, the first book in the Curious Realities series. But yet in terms of one of the games in the book, the first game Solitary, you have one of Lewis Carroll’s quotes. “Who in the world am I?” That magically is going to relate to my 15-year-old daughter and what she’s going through, what your kids are going to go through as they get older and so you want to cocoon that idea around a story that lets them explore and have adventure. So with the public domain and familiar stories told in an unfamiliar way you’re really trying to connect with a contemporary audience. And if they discover Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland because of it, you’re gonna make a lot of librarians happy.

SE
I 100% agree with that. I also have a 15-year-old daughter, and as teenagers, they’re trying to figure out who they are. That’s why I love writing about teens and for teens. But at the same time, so much of my audience is adults. So I think that teenage period of figuring out who you are and what you want and what you want to do just continues to resonate with us, no matter how old we get. 

FB
I always ask my guests to choose a character from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to describe their personality and their aspirations. Who would you dress up as for Halloween or as cosplay? I have a feeling I know who you would choose. 

SE
I feel like my answer is very cliche and boring. But as I was friends with Alice, when I worked for the Disney parks, I would choose Alice. I love how she’s walking around in this world that she created for herself. Yet she’s going around, trying to tell people they’re not taking her seriously enough, everybody needs to be more serious. Stop with the nonsense. That just really resonates. It’s kind of the dynamic of my husband and I’s relationship, which is very similar to Alice and Chess in The Wonderland Trials. He’s always trying to lighten the mood. She’s always trying to get him to be more serious. It’s a fun kind of dynamic. So it might be a boring, typical answer, but I would definitely be Alice.

Author Sara Ella at Disneyland holding up a copy of her book, "The Wonderland Trials" next to an actress portraying Alice from Disney's 1951 film "Alice in Wonderland".

FB
Interestingly enough, most of the time people pick some other character so I always find it interesting when someone picks Alice. What I also find curious is that in your book, Alice is really edgy. She’s street-smart. She’s a card shark. She’s got great retorts. I identify with Alice or when people ask me about my books and which character I enjoyed writing most I always say Alice. Her journey is so interesting and writing a book is like going on an adventure in Wonderland. It’s nonsensical at times. It was certainly nonsensical for me to even take on writing my first book. But of course, there has to be a little Mad Hatter, just to be in this business. But I love your character of Alice and her nickname is Ace, which is really appropriate. By the way, all of the references to cards in the design of the book, everything about the book from a production standpoint is spectacular. It’s so well done. Kudos to your team.

SE
Thank you. I have a really great team. I was really grateful to work with a cover designer who took my sad little concept that I created and turned it into the cover because the cover is probably my favorite cover that I’ve ever had. 

FB
The covers for both the first book and the second one, The Looking Glass Illusion, are great.

You said earlier that your process is discovering the story as you write. Can you talk a little bit about that? Have you ever written yourself into a corner and gone, “Man, I gotta start all over again.”

SE
Yes, but after six books, I’m working on my seventh now, I have learned to stop fighting that process. When I first started I thought I was doing it wrong and I needed to outline. The one book I outlined was Coral, which is my reimagining of The Little Mermaid, and I had to rewrite that book three times. This is why I tell all writers just because something works for somebody else doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. We’re all creative in different ways and our brains work in different ways. So if you feel like you’re inside a box with outlining, try not outlining. I really love Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody, which is based on Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! As somebody who’s a very visual movie person, the beats that she puts together work for me. I follow those beats as a guideline, “I’m at this percentage of the book, where do I need to go next?” I use it as my map, my GPS. Jessica Brody has a really great course on her Writing Mastery Academy about fast drafting and how her process works for that. I realized this is what I’ve been doing. But she explains it and organizes it in a way that even though there’s a kind of madness to it, there’s still a method. It’s a lot of note-taking, just keeping track of and moving the story forward, getting that first draft down. I have comments in the margins, “Change this character to a female, make sure that you change this character’s personality.” It’s like I’m editing as I’m writing it, and I’m seeing the problems come out. But then I just write forward from that point, however, I’m going to end up changing the beginning.

FB
We’re very similar in that way. Your writing is very visual. Certainly, that happened for me, because that’s the medium I was working in when I started writing The Looking Glass Wars. Also, I had to rewrite it three or four times as well. Then once my editor came on it was like, “Oh, my God, I have a lot of problems to fix.” But once you get the first book under your belt, you find your own rhythm. What you just described makes perfect sense and everybody does things differently. Also, your talent for prose is clear. It’s really beautiful writing. No wonder you have so many books under your belt. 

SE
Thank you so much.

FB
Let’s talk about promoting your book. You live in Arizona, right?

SE
Yes, I’m about 20 minutes north of Phoenix.

FB
Did you ever go to the Comic-Con there?

SE
Not yet, but I’m hoping to be able to go this year. It’s called Phoenix Fan Fusion now, but I am hoping to be able to go. I have connected with a local bookstore and I have several author friends who go.

FB
I went to Comic-Con in San Diego and I had only published in the UK. When I was in the UK, I went to a school and one of the kids was upset because I didn’t write the whole story of Hatter Madigan’s 13 years and he wanted me to go home and finish the book. And on the plane ride home, I thought maybe I could do a comic book about those 13 years. So I did a comic and then I went to San Diego Comic-Con and it turns out that people were interested in the comic because of the artist. But when they read the comic and realized there was a novel attached to it, they started buying the British edition of the novel on Amazon. And what I’ve realized is I sold more novels at Comic-Con than I did comic books. The people who go are huge readers, they’re early adaptors, and they want to get the word out. It’s a great place to press the flesh and sell books, whether you get a dealer’s table which is for folks like us or you go in with a publisher and you’re at their table.

SE
I definitely want to and now you’ve motivated me to try even harder to be able to get there.

FB
Have you done anything with Changing Hands Bookstore?

Author Sara Ella signing books at a table.

SE
Yes, they have been so fantastic to work with. They have collaborated with me to do pre-orders, so readers who pre-order my books are able to get signed and personalized copies along with a little envelope of pre-order goodies. They have just been fantastic. They’ve done my launch parties for the past three books and I will continue to go back there because they have a huge YA audience.

FB
They’ve cultivated the best audience. I’ve done a number of events with Changing Hands and they’re also great at setting up school events. Have you done many school visits?

SE
I’ve only done a couple of school visits. But I’d like to eventually do more so I’ve been really grateful to be connected with several authors in the area and keep my ear to the ground for different invites and opportunities that come up. 

FB
The thing about Arizona is the schools are very large. You can go into some of those schools, and Changing Hands set this up for me, where there’d be 30 6th graders, 30 7th graders, 30 8th graders and you do three presentations. Then Changing Hands or any other bookstore will sell the books on-site and you get pre-orders or post-orders. That was one of the great ways to build out that YA audience. You have such a unique and interesting story because of your time at Disney and your interest in fairy tales that I think you could really connect with those kids.

SE
I always say it’s easier to speak in front of adults than children because you really have to win children over. But I do love public speaking. I taught a creative writing class last year to teenagers at our homeschool group. The year started with them saying nothing and acting like they didn’t want to be there but as the year progressed, I couldn’t get them to stop talking. I feel like you have to earn that from kids. That’s what I really love about speaking in front of teens and children, if you have them engaged and laughing and asking questions, you’ve earned it. So I definitely would love more opportunities to speak at schools. I had the opportunity to speak at the Arizona State University writing summer camp a couple of years in a row and that was a smaller group but also a lot of fun. 

FB
Do you do much with advanced reader copies when finalizing your books?

SE
With my debut novel, Unblemished, I did work with several beta readers who were giving me feedback before I even submitted it to publishers. Now that I’m writing on contract and writing on deadline, I usually form a kind of street team. They’re the ones who get the advance copies and they get to submit reviews early so we can build that hype. Though, I always ask them please, before the release, only have spoiler-free reviews.

As far as feedback goes at this point in my career, it mostly comes from Nadine Brandes, my best friend, and a fellow author, and then just working with my editors. I’ll ask my 15-year-old daughter things because I sometimes date myself with certain references. I’m also an editor and I was editing a story for a client the other day and there was a reference to Smokey the Bear. So I asked my teenage daughter, “Do you know who Smokey the Bear is?” She said she did. So that’s how I gauge if I’m dating myself. But as far as feedback goes with beta readers, most of those advanced copies are really just going to those early readers who are getting the word out. But at that point, nothing in the novel can be changed.

Cover of "Unblemished" by author Sara Ella.
Cover of "Unraveling" by author Sara Ella.
Cover of "Unbreakable" by author Sara Ella.

FB
In terms of reviews as it relates to Alice in Wonderland and the British sensibility versus an American taking it on, I got a lot of blowback. “What’s this Yank doing?” I noticed a lot of the reviews were not always that kind. It felt sort of personal because I was an American. I was curious if you had any feedback about taking on this classic.

SE
You’re always going to have both sides of the coin with a retelling. Whenever I’m asked by a new writer, “What are your tips for writing a retelling?” I always say, “You can’t please everyone.” You’re gonna have your readers who expect it to be exactly like the original and they’re very protective of that story so if you get something wrong, or if you change something in a way they don’t like, they’re going to come after you. Particularly, when you’re researching another culture or another place you’re not from, you want to get it right. But there are inevitably things that you’re going to get wrong. On the one hand, I’ve had people say, “Wow, I lived in England for three years and this is so authentic and accurate. I loved it.” Then I’ve had other people who have reviewed it and said that everything was very forced and you can tell I know nothing about England or British culture.

FB
I think I have that exact same review.

SE
I think you have to expect that your story is not going to be for everyone. You’re going to research to the best of your ability but we’re also writing fiction. Sometimes our work is based on a part of our reality. But in the end, you’re going to take certain liberties and your book is not going to be for every reader. I don’t read reviews unless they’re sent to me. Sometimes I stumble across one or two I wish I hadn’t stumbled across. But for the most part, I find that either way, if I’m reading reviews that are building the book up, I’m gonna get a big head about it. If I’m reading reviews that are tearing the book down, I’m going to doubt the book. There’s nothing I can do about it because I can’t change it. So I just try to stay down the middle of the road. If someone tags me in a review, I’ll read it and I’ll thank them for it but for the most part, I always tell writers, that if reviews are affecting you one way or another to the point where it’s affecting your writing, and it’s changing the way you think about your own story, then it’s probably best to try and stay away from reviews altogether.

FB
Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the sequel? My last two books, Seeing Red and ArchEnemy, were really a continuation. It really upset people. They were pissed off because it didn’t have that definitive ending like The Looking Glass Wars and it was a long time before ArchEnemy came out. If I had to do it over again, I would have had a more satisfying ending to the second book. But of course, I was inexperienced so I didn’t really realize that. So tell me about the ending of The Wonderland Trials and how you constructed The Looking-Glass Illusion. What’s the transition?

SE
The Looking-Glass Illusion is a continuation. So for those who have not read The Wonderland Trials, now would be the time to fast-forward through this part of the podcast. But The Wonderland Trials ends with Alison and her team, Team Heart, leaving the third trial behind and entering the fourth trial, which is the Queen’s Trial, the Heart Trial, and they don’t quite know what to expect. The entire premise of The Looking-Glass Illusion is where you have The Wonderland Trials which has three different trials, the entire second book is set in the Heart Trial. For those familiar with Lewis Carroll’s second story of Alice, Through the Looking-Glass, the Heart Trial is all on a chessboard and it’s all about Alice trying to get to the eighth square. I went into this not knowing how to play chess. So how am I supposed to write a book that’s based on the game of chess? That’s where my friend Janelle came in. She sat down with me and taught me the basics of how to play. So the entire story of The Looking-Glass Illusion is trying to defeat the Heart Trial, but they’re also trying to find what’s real and what has happened to the real Wonderland. As Alice and her team learned in The Wonderland Trials, what they’re seeing is not necessarily what the real Wonderland is meant to be and is an illusion that they believe the Queen of Hearts has created. So if they defeat the Heart Trial, they believe they can find the real Wonderland. So that’s the second book and I had a lot of fun figuring out how chess played into it. I had a lot of fun with some of the nonsense words. Okay, this is a nonsense word, Lewis Carroll, but how does it fit into my world? I had a lot of fun with that and the Jabberwocky and really the whole theme is believing in the impossible, but also facing your fears. 

FB
I really like that, believing in the impossible. Do you have a favorite iteration of Alice? I’m assuming the Disney movie is one of your favorites because you worked there. But is there a song or another movie that you love?

SE
I listened to “Welcome to Wonderland” by Anson Seabra a lot when I was writing The Wonderland Trials. It’s kind of a melancholy song but obviously, if you’re writing Alice, you’re thinking of Alice, but it’s really just a song for people. I really love the lyrics. One of my favorite reimaginings of Alice on screen has got to be what the TV show Once Upon a Time did with Mad Hatter’s character, who’s named Jefferson Hatter in the show. He’s a portal jumper and the evil Queen Regina wants to use him for this and he spirals into madness. Because there’s always the question, how did the Mad Hatter become mad? There’s obviously the history behind how hats were made but in the show, he’s so desperate to get back to his daughter that he continues trying to make a portal-jumping hat and he spirals. So I love what Once Upon a Time did with that and I love what they did overall meshing and melding the different fairy tales. That was a lot of fun. It remains one of my favorite on-screen retellings of Alice, particularly Hatter’s story.

FB
Can you tease us with a retelling that you’re thinking about? Mine is Treasure Island. There’s got to be a way to do Treasure Island.

SE
I would read that book. Treasure Planet is one of my all-time favorite underrated Disney movies. I am contracted for a four-book series with my publisher and each book is going to be a retelling paired with a literary classic. I cannot divulge specifically the one I’m working on now which releases in 2025 or my marketing director might have off with your head. But I will say that for anybody who’s followed me, you can find me on Instagram at @saraellawrites. I’ve been dropping lots of clues to the fairytale that I’ve wanted to work on for many, many years to come. It’s a fairy tale that has resonated with me and the book that I’ve chosen to mash it up with is one of my favorite stories from literature. But it’s also one of my favorite films and the film is very different from the book. But I feel that this particular fairy tale in this particular story from classic literature fits very well together. So if you want to go clue hunting, if you’ve read The Wonderland Trials you know I love clues and games, you can scour my Instagram to see the clues that I’ve dropped for what I’m working on next.

FB
Okay, listeners, I need you to do that and message me what you think it is. I definitely want to follow up and have you on the show again and hear all about it because that is an excellent, tease for your upcoming book. It’s really been a pleasure to have you on the show and talk about all things Alice and in particular, your really successful, beautifully written books. 

SE
Thank you so much for having me, Frank. When I received your email to be on the show, I thought, “Is this real or am I being scammed?” So thank you for having me on. I’ve been a follower of yours for years. Love your books. It was really an honor to get to chat with you today.

FB
Thank you very much. Have a great day. 


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All Things Alice: Interview with Adrienne Kress, Part 2

As an amateur scholar and die-hard enthusiast of everything to do with Alice in Wonderland, I have launched a podcast that takes on Alice’s everlasting influence on pop culture. As an author who draws on Lewis Carroll’s iconic masterpiece for my Looking Glass Wars universe, I’m well acquainted with the process of dipping into Wonderland for inspiration.

The journey has brought me into contact with a fantastic community of artists and creators from all walks of life—and this podcast will be the platform where we come together to answer the fascinating question: “What is it about Alice?”

For this episode, it was my great pleasure to have Adrienne Kress join me as my guest on this episode! Read on to explore our conversation and check out the whole series on your favorite podcasting platform to listen to the full interview.

"All Things Alice" podcast logo featuring Adrienne Kress with images of book covers for "Bendy: Fade to Black", "The Explorers", "Alex and the Ironic Gentleman", and "Hatter Madigan: Ghost in the H.A.T.B.O.X."

Frank Beddor
As a kid, the whole idea of identity and trying on these different identities while growing up is really universal. But what’s remarkable, since I’ve been working in the Alice universe, is how deeply seated it is in culture and how Alice has become such a muse for creatives. We never had this conversation. Can you tell us a little bit about Alex and the Ironic Gentleman? I didn’t know that it was inspired by Alice. How did you use elements of Alice in your book?

Adrienne Kress
The very basic plot is a girl, Alex, has to rescue her grade six teacher from pirates. She was raised by her uncle but he was killed and the only adult in her life who’s a parental figure is this teacher. At the same time, she’s found a treasure map, which is what these pirates were looking for. So it’s also a treasure hunt kind of thing. Act One establishes everybody and begins the adventure and has pirates kidnap the teacher. Act Three, we go to sea. We’ve got the H.M.S. Valiant, we’ve got our good guys and then we’ve got the Ironic Gentlemen, who are the pirates. We have a proper Treasure Island-style, Peter Pan-style adventure. 

But Act Two is very much Alice in Wonderland. Alex has to get to Port Cullis, which is a port town where she’s trying to get a boat. So the journey from her town to Port Cullis, that’s the Alice bit and it’s very much Alice in Wonderland. She’s thrown into a very absurdist world. Even though it’s her world, her world is absurd. Everything is very episodic. It starts with a very strange train sequence that’s my Beckett, existential absurdism. My very first play was that Waiting for Godot style, the circle that never ends. I find it horrifying and deeply amusing at the same time. So it starts with that and then Alex ends up being plopped in a forest. Then in this forest, she comes across different people who are absurd caricatures or, in one case, an extremely ginormous octopus who’s an older English-style lush actor like Peter O’Toole.

Alex has to help solve its problems to move on to the next step, which is yet another person who needs another thing. She’s basically trying to get to Point B but she keeps getting waylaid. I remember my editor being like, “Okay, if we’re going to do this, it’s not very forward moving so let’s make sure that we have no extraneous words.” We did cut one scene where she meets a French horn player, which I was sad about because I used to play French horn which is why that was in there. But she has these scenes and for some readers that’s their favorite bit. I think the Alice fans at heart get it. Then some people are like, “Oh my god, I just wanted to get to Port Cullis.” They wanted that more straight journey.

Book cover of middle grade fantasy adventure novel "Alex and the Ironic Gentleman" by Adrienne Kress.
Alice in the 1951 Disney film "Alice in Wonderland".

FB
They wanted Treasure Island

AK
Exactly. We get there. I just wanted to do a little bit before that.

FB
So if you like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Treasure Island, or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, this is a book for you.

AK
I did call it an homage to children’s lit. It’s the first book I ever finished writing. The first children’s book I ever wrote. So everything was very much an homage. Everything was something else. I put friends in it. Previous employers were in it. I tried to represent everyone nicely.

It was just everything I love in a book not thinking it would be published, not even thinking about publishing. Then, of course, there’s the challenge of realizing you have to write a second more challenging thing. I think writing a first book is hard but you’re so focused on this crazy huge accomplishment, “I have this goal and it took me 10 years, but I’m going to do it and put everything I’ve got into this thing.” Then you get published and you start to have a career and somebody asks you for a second book and you’re like, “But I can’t do what I did. I can’t do that all over again.”

FB
I thought it was exactly the opposite. There was something about the first one in terms of not having any pressure because you don’t think it’s gonna get published and you can take 5-10 years, however long it takes. However, once it’s there, and you figured out the rules and the logic, then yes, there’s a pressure. But so much of it’s already a roadmap, and much easier, and the second book certainly took me a lot less time. I did feel pressure from the editors a little bit more, but I was happy that I had already established that, if they liked this world, I’d been working on it. I have all this stuff in a filing cabinet. I’ll just pull more stuff. 

AK
There is a difference. I don’t know why I did this to myself. I’ve now written some series but generally, I always enjoyed standalones. I decided for the second book, I was going to write a completely different story. It was set in the same world but with completely different characters and, a completely different story, and then halfway through, we would bring Alex back into it and stuff. So I think writing a direct sequel has its unique challenges, especially if people really liked the first one. It’s like, “Oh, no, how do I make this as well-liked, if not more well-liked too? How do I write the second book, but not rest on my laurels? There are a lot of challenges with that. But I think for me because I decided I’m going to write a second book that’s completely not the first, I felt again like I was starting a bit from scratch.

Book cover of middle-grade adventure novel "The Explorers: The Quest for the Kid" by Adrienne Kress.
Book cover of middle-grade adventure novel "The Explorers: The Reckless Rescue" by Adrienne Kress.
Book cover of middle-grade adventure novel "The Explorers: The Door in the Alley" by Adrienne Kress.

FB
That’s for sure

You have a whole new series out. You have three books in the Bendy series.

AK
The Bendy books are a series, but they’re also standalones. So we’ve done it again. But The Explorers, which is just mine is a proper three-book series. 

FB
Can you walk us through that? Did you know you were going to have a trilogy when you started it? 

AK
Yes. It was a three-book deal from the beginning. Just from the beginning, it was a very classic, hoping that each book is their own adventure but it had that very classic overarching arc. They had to collect things and they had to rescue somebody by the end.

FB
Were they saying they wanted the book to come out every year or every 18 months? Did you have that added pressure? 

AK
It was every year or 18 months, I can’t remember which, but it was definitely that. So that window where you had to write the whole of the next book and then go through the whole process again and write it in time with their deadlines

FB
I found that very stressful, by the way, hitting a deadline for the book. Because they said you’re going to lose your audience. The audience is going to find some other series.

AK
There’s one book in the Bendy book series, which is in the YA section because it’s a memoir. In the very first game, there’s a book called The Illusion of Living, which is the memoir of Joey Drew, who’s the Walt Disney of this animation studio. So they wanted me to write the memoir, which was a really cool experience writing a memoir about an adult male for a young adult section. But with these three books, the other two are technically Y.A., there’s less of the pressure that you’re talking about, which just blows my mind. “You’re going to lose your audience.” Who says that? But that kind of pressure, when the developers of Bendy decided they wanted the next book, I guess they would talk to Scholastic about it, then Scholastic would come to me and say, “You have to get this to us in two months.” That level of fast. It isn’t the same way as writing a series where they’re like, “We need the next book ASAP for the series.” It was more like, “When we’re ready for the next one, we gotta go, go, go.” 

The front cover of "Bendy and the Ink Machine: Dreams Come to Life" by Adrienne Kress.
The front cover of "Bendy: The Illusion of Living" by Adrienne Kress.

FB
Just to make it clear for the listeners, Bendy is based on a video game. So they needed these books for the day and date of releasing a new game?

AK
I don’t fully know what the decision-making process is there. I’m just happy to be a part of it. So the second game was released this time last year. I think it’s possible that when they finished working on the game, they were like, “Okay, now we would like another book.” They were so focused on the game, as they should be. But I believe it was a year from being told they’d like another book. So that’s even before I’ve written an outline to send to them. It was a year, from that point to the release of the most recent one. This time last year, I would have been knee-deep in writing it.

The most recent one, Fade to Black, came out at the beginning of October and I don’t think I had started writing it last year at the beginning of October.

FB
Let me just get all these titles right. So Bendy and the Ink Machine: Dreams Come to Life was book one, which came out in 2019. Did you have to audition for this? Send in an outline and based on the outline, they chose you or did you have a pre-existing relationship? 

AK
I think they reached out to maybe four other authors and there was very little that they required. They wanted it to be Y.A., set in the studio, the games take place decades after the studio is over, so essentially, they wanted it set in the 1940s. That’s about it. Then I came back saying I’d like to do an apprentice who’s 17, and works in the art department because obviously, the whole point of his game is art. So let’s put them in the art department. They liked that and they were thinking the exact same thing. At that point, all of us who they had asked wrote pages. I think they wanted about five pages but I asked if I could submit 15. So I did the opening which is almost entirely the same opening of Dreams Come to Life. I guess they liked it, which was very nice.

The front cover of "Bendy: The Lost Ones" by Adrienne Kress.
The front cover of "Bendy: Fade to Black" by Adrienne Kress.

FB
And the second is Bendy: The Illusion of Living. The third one is Bendy and the Ink Machine: The Lost Ones and the most recent book is Bendy: Fade to Black.

Also, it was published through Scholastic, which is great because they have such a far reach and they were your original publishers as well. 

AK
They were the ones who published Alex and the Ironic Gentleman. They were the very first.

FB
You’re keeping it in the family. That must have been nice. Do they have an editor that they assigned to these books?

AK
So it’s fascinating and goes back to what I was saying about reluctant readers. They have an imprint called AFK, which means Away From Keyboard. For those who don’t know your acronyms, which I did not, that’s a very cool online acronym. They did the Five Nights at Freddy’s books, which are massive.

I don’t know when they actually started the imprint or whether it was on the back of how successful the Five Nights at Freddy’s stuff was but they do all these video game tie-ins. My editors have all been incredible. What I really liked about it beyond it being fun is that they have this imprint that’s all focused on video game tie-ins and you’re getting all these readers like me, reluctant readers, who might not be into a book going “Well, that is my favorite video game.” I get it all the time from kids and teenagers, “I hate books,” or “I don’t like reading. I’ve never really read a book. But I read this one because I love Bendy and it was really good.” I hope that the Bendy books spark that realization of “There are books for me. I just have to find them. They might not be what even the school is showing me but somewhere there are books for me.” So as the reluctant reader I really, really love that. 

It’s so fun to read certain reviews, like on Goodreads, where they said the author didn’t have to go this hard. No, I did. I have to get themes. I have to get morals. I have to get complicated ethics questions. I love that I’m able to do that and sneak that stuff into these books. Then next year, they’re adapting the first book into a graphic novel, which I’m also super into. I’ve got a graphic novel of my own that’s coming out in 2025 because it takes forever. It’s 250 pages and this incredible artist, Jade Zhang, has to illustrate it. I don’t know how she’s doing it. To me, it seems fast. But they’re releasing Dreams Come to Life as a graphic novel next year. Again, I love that because I think graphic novels also open the world of reading even more.

FB
Are you adapting your own book, the prose, into the graphic novel or are they hiring somebody else to do that?

AK
They’ve hired a writer named Christopher Hastings, who’s done this a fair bit. When I was first told there was going to be a graphic novel I was like, “They probably already have somebody but I could do it.” And then I thought, “No, even though I know how to write a script, how on Earth do you make that book that’s almost 300 pages into a graphic novel?” Even if it’s got the same number of pages, it’s not going to be that same length.

FB
Let’s go to your graphic novel because that’s fascinating. I wrote my prose and then I had no idea what I was doing and then I did a graphic novel and I look back on it and go, “Wow, I made so many mistakes and set up this so terribly.” But it was really, really fun to do and now I understand how different it is. Can you speak to writing your first graphic novel? 

Pencil sketch page from the graphic novel "Hatter M: Far From Wonder" written by Frank Beddor and Liz Cavalier and illustrated by Ben Templesmith.
Finished page from the graphic novel "Hatter M: Far From Wonder" written by Frank Beddor and Liz Cavalier and illustrated by Ben Templesmith.

AK
The way that one writes a graphic novel is you have page numbers, specific pages that you have to dictate, and then what happens in specific panels on those pages. That is what is so challenging. I love it. I think very visually to begin with and I’ve read a lot of graphic novels. So I felt very comfortable playing around with how to use the space and what to do. I have a friend Stephanie Cook, who has a lot of kidlit graphic novels out now, and also is an editor, and she does tons with graphic novels in the comics community in general. So we met up, and I’m like, “Help me.” She told me generally, for middle grade, you don’t want more than five panels on a page. Very pragmatic things like that which were very, very helpful. But generally, I had a good vibe, I had a good sense of aesthetics. 

But what I didn’t know until I was going back over it myself, and then working with an editor on it, was how hard editing a graphic novel is. Because in a book, screenplay, or play, if you need an extra bit of dialogue or an extra section to fully understand what’s happening, “Sure, I’ll put it here.” But if you add a single thing to a graphic novel script, it’s Tetris. You add another panel, and then that fifth panel has fallen off the page. Can I fit it into the next page? Or can I make this page six panels? Or do I need that panel? Maybe I can get rid of that panel? Or do we move everything down? But of course, there are two-page spreads and you have to make sure that you have pages two and three side by side. It can’t be three and four because they’re on opposite sides of the page. It’s math. 

FB
Every page you add is hundreds and hundreds of dollars for the artists because they get paid by the page unless you make a deal with them where they’re part of the authorship. I found the editing process really, really challenging, as well. But the heavy lifting is the artists. Also, the artists can say, “Hey, I can’t fit all those panels,” or “There’s so much dialogue in this particular panel, we’re going to have to move it around a little bit.” I was really leaning on Ben Templesmith.

AK
I’ve given so many challenges to Jane. So the story is called Ghost Circus and it’s about these two kids and we meet these ghosts at the circus.

FB
Not in the H.A.T.B.O.X.?

AK
No ghosts in the H.A.T.B.O.X. 

FB
It’s in the circus, not the H.A.T.B.O.X. Okay. 

Concept art from the middle-grade graphic novel "Ghost Circus" written by Adrienne Kress and illustrated by Jade Zhang.

AK
There are flashbacks to how the ghosts became ghosts and they’re set in all different time periods. So Jade’s drawing 1930s New York and then the savanna with elephants, plus the main timeline we’re in with the ghost circus itself and all the characters there. It’s so impressive. I feel like I’ll know whether or not she had issues or whether she solved them. I think there’s one or two times she’ll do something with a couple of panels and I’m like, “Oh, yeah, that makes more sense.” But maybe just because I was so aware of the middle gradeness of it all, that was very much at the forefront of my mind. So being aware of the number of panels I needed per page. Then before even Jade came on board, editing it and working on it with the editor, he’d be like, “This is too much though. We’re not going to fit that dialogue on our panel.” That’s where the math came in. But it was an incredible learning curve.

FB
But being a playwright, you really had a handle, because that is the closest form to writing for graphic novels.

AK
One hundred percent. Thank goodness I had that experience. Because I did look at other people’s scripts, I wanted to learn, something even just as simple as page one, panel one. I wanted to know how that works. It’s great to have that reason for us to look at what other people have done but it didn’t feel awkward because graphic novel writing comes from playwriting and the scripts look like a play. 

FB
My wife and I are working on a graphic novel and this is her first graphic novel but she had been a staff writer on the show Bones. So she sort of understands but we were having the simplest conversations, “So, on the one page, is it panel 1 through 5, and then on page two, it’s panel six, do you continue?” “No, it’s just one through five and then the next page is one through five.” 

AK
That question makes perfect sense. Like, “You’re not repeating the same pattern?” 

FB
But this time we hired an editor from the very beginning and said, “Okay, here’s the basis of the story.” Then he was saying you have to have a sensitivity reader read it because some of the names and some elements don’t quite line up based on the story. So we’ve done that. It’s really a science, as you say, it’s a math question. There is a lot more going on in the world in terms of when you create something to make sure it’s accessible to all.

AK
I do think it’s quite wonderful because I think we’ve been using sensitivity readers for a while, as authors. Reaching out to people we know or asking our friends, “Hey, do you know somebody who might be able to look over this section because I want to make sure this is as correct and sensitive as possible?” It’s all kind of already existed but I like that it’s been codified as a proper job. It’s something that I think is more front and center of awareness, which I think is important. We had one, specifically for Bendy: Fade to Black, which is set after World War II and the dad has PTSD from the war. It’s thematically important to the story. The whole story is actually about PTSD and mental health, and living with that sort of trauma. I did my level best, researching and trying to make things as sensitive and as authentic as possible, but Scholastic did give it to somebody to read over just to make sure that we were doing it right.

Image from the horror indie video game "Bendy and the Dark Revival" from Joey Drew Studios.

FB
I agree with you. The level of subtlety is really different and we must be mindful. For the graphic novel my wife and I are working on in particular, the characters all come from different places and we wanted to make sure that we were honoring everybody’s heritage and getting it right. Are you interested in World War II much after doing that research?

AK
It’s one of those things that I think is by virtue of being a cinephile there are so many movies about World War II. But then, for my generation, it impacted our grandparents. So it’s a very present thing. You’ve got a real direct connection versus perhaps other history that feels like it’s almost a story. You don’t have that visceral connection, which is why I think I might have struggled with other history classes and other history. It wasn’t until I started doing art history where you could actually go and see the actual works and connect to the reality of it that I realized I did like history. I just need to consume it differently. 

There are a lot of phenomenal YouTube shows that are about the domestic side of history. So a day in the life in Victorian England. What did you eat? Where do you sleep? With the first Bendy book, they wanted it just after World War II. I had been to New York and somebody recommended the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side. They found a boarded-up tenement that hadn’t been renovated, and hadn’t been touched, and from there they started reaching out to families generationally for stories and objects, they looked at census information. What it’s become is you go on these tours and it’s like just walking through history. You’re there. You’re seeing and touching everything and it was incredible. Shortly thereafter, I got the gig for the book and they wanted it set in the 1940s and I was like “Okay, I’ll make it New York.” I know their lives. I know where he lives. 

FB
That’s great. You were destined to write these. Are there going to be more books in this series? 

AK
It’s been such a pleasure and I really enjoy working on them. I know the developers are very focused on the next games as well. They’re very sweet about it, which I’m grateful for because I was very nervous with a pre-existing fan base. I felt the same way about Hatter Madigan.

FB
That was really fun, working on Hatter Madigan: Ghost in the H.A.T.B.O.X. together. I knew I was in good hands when you came up with the idea that he was an insider and not an outsider. Your rationale was that Harry Potter had done that to such great success and there are a lot of other stories that do the same thing, that Hatter being an insider would make the story in this book unique. Once you pitched that, I said, “Okay, that’s a very smart idea.”

Author Adrienne Kress sitting down and surrounded by piles of the middle-grade novel "Hatter Madigan: Ghost in the H.A.T.B.O.X." by Frank Beddor and Adrienne Kress.

AK
Thank you. It was so much fun. The world is, God…creating that world the way that you have, with literally an encyclopedia, is so phenomenal and so intimidating as a writer. I admire so much just the depth of the world-building you had. As we were talking about with Alice in Wonderland, that’s what’s so great about all these adaptations of Alice is everybody’s unique perspective. 

FB
I was really trying to create a jumping-off place. Take some of the motifs and then use that creativity and share the sandbox and see what other people can bring to it. In every conversation I had with you and with other creatives, it doesn’t work unless you bring yourself to it. You bring something unique that you can do. That’s what I’m looking for. I don’t want to be precious. I want to actually break away from it a lot more because I’ve gotten so focused. I think about it in a loop and I can’t break out of it unless I have another voice.

AK
That’s so fair. You were asking me about the adaptation of Dreams Come to Life. There is no way, with the narrowness of focus that I have, that I could possibly bring a unique look to that book. But a new person adapting it would. That’s the crazy part, isn’t it? Getting to write and make stuff up as a job.

FB
How do you balance writing your own work, adapting something, producing, and auditioning? What’s the day-to-day balance that you try to accomplish?

AK
What’s balance? I wish it felt more like I had a plan and I really stuck to it. The truth is, it’s a little bit flying by the seat of your pants. I can’t speak to what they are but I’ve got two write-for-hires that just happened this month. So right now balancing those…and I feel very good about the plan because the jobs are so vastly different. There are a lot of reasons why I can do that. I wouldn’t always say yes to doing two projects right at the same time but these worked very nicely together, they complement each other. But this summer, I had no writing, anything. I didn’t have edits. Nothing was sorted that way. So I decided I really wanted to write. I have a middle-grade story that’s much more in the style of Judy Blume. So not fantastical in any way, more coming of age. I’ve been really wanting to write it for a few years so I’m like, “That’s what I’m doing this summer.” 

It takes place over a summer so it felt like the right temperature because I’m in Canada and we only get this so much. That’s with my agent and we’ll probably go on submission to publishers in the new year. But I’m glad I did that, over that gap in the summer, because then these projects came along and it would be sad because I don’t think I would have been able to balance them with my original work. The key is taking advantage of moments. If you can’t plan everything out ahead of time you can still have a sense of how long a project will take and maybe when that’s done I’ll do this thing that’s more in my control. The pet projects that might not have a home yet. You have to still honor and give space to that project. 

FB
You had a good summer. You finished a new book and you had a movie come out.

AK
Post on the movie was a long post. There was no way you could focus on anything else. I was also injured at the time so that didn’t help. I think you’re well aware that moviemaking can be entirely consuming. 

Adrienne Kress and Ryan Allen in the 2023 horror film "The Devil Comes at Night".

FB
When you’re on set, forget it. You only have so many hours in the day and then you’re gonna lose crew and locations.

AK
Exactly. If I was just acting, that would be different because you have a lot of downtime as an actor on a set. That’s a great time to maybe just get a few words in the computer. It’s much easier to multitask. But as a producer and as a writer on it, you do not have the same level of free time. 

FB
You said fly by the seat of your pants and one of the reasons for that is so much of the work is speculative. There’s the focus you need to finish your book that you’re not getting paid for or the movie that has enough financing just to get it made, but you’re not making any money unless the movie sells. Then depending on how many bills you have to pay it’s like “Okay, where am I putting my attention?” If I need to pay bills, I need that work-for-hire stuff, or for this movie, let’s gamble and see if we have a little payday at the end of it. It does feel like when you’re doing so many different mediums, you’ll fly by the seat of your pants because there is no structure to it. It’s really a self-generated structure. That’s not so easy. 

AK
A lot of people I talk to, even writers who are also doing a day job, I’m like, “Oh, if only I had all that free time.” I am very lucky. I get to write professionally as my job. That is an amazing, amazing gift. It’s incredible. But there are other challenges. There was a long period where I was writing, especially with Alex and the Ironic Gentleman, but I also had a day job. Even once it got published, I still had a job. That job schedule does actually help schedule out your writing too because you only have certain windows in which you can do it. If you have the whole day, it’s very hard to schedule things. 

FB
I had this equivalent when I had kids and it’s like, “Wait a second, I only have from 10 to midnight.”

AK
Exactly. It’s hard. I do really admire people. There are just unique challenges for all of it. In the end, you have to be your own boss. You have to give yourself your own deadlines. With my deadline for this coming-of-age middle grade that I finished, I was telling friends, “I’m a week behind. I know I finished it the next week, but I really wanted to get it done earlier. I’m really annoyed with myself.” And my friends will say, “But it’s your own deadline.” I treat my own deadlines like somebody else has imposed them. 

FB
I agree with that. I think the more discipline, the better off you are. So yeah. 

Before we go, if you were a character from Alice in Wonderland, who would you be and why?

AK
That’s a good question. As a drama major in my art school, every year you had a different focus and in grade 10 a lot of that was performance, putting together a little production. We were very fortunate in our year that we got to do Alice in Wonderland. I was cast as the White Queen, which is what I wanted and I loved playing her. I don’t think I had ever played a flighty character. I tend to get cast as intelligent, grounded human characters. I think the White Queen might have been the first sort of flighty, weird character I got to play. That meant a lot to me. I realized I like playing these characters. I just love the character and her wordplay. Her particular scene that she has with Alice, with all the wordplay, “tomorrow, yesterday, today.” 

Growing up, I’d obviously seen the Disney movie. But there’s a TV version from 1985 and Carol Channing is the White Queen, and she has a song. I grew up with that version. The Jabberwock was so scary that I couldn’t watch half of it because it gave me nightmares, but I still loved it. 

Carol Channing as the White Queen and Natalie Gregory as Alice in the 1985 CBS television film "Alice in Wonderland".

FB
That is a very, very good answer. It might be the best answer of anybody that I’ve interviewed because not all have played the character. So it’s generational from the 80s. 

AK
I’ve always loved her. Of course, I did get to dress as your Alyss and that was amazing. I need to wear that jacket again.

FB
If people wanted to start reading your work, where would you suggest they start? Would you say something like Alex and the Ironic Gentleman or The Explorers?

AK
I’m approaching 20 years since Alex came out, which blows my mind. It’s just a very weird feeling. There’s one boy who wrote this really great review. He sent me an email for Alex, probably one of the first kids who emailed me about a book. I reached out and we had this whole chat. He was 13 at the time, and now he’s an author. 

But I do think Alex is still out there. It hasn’t gone out of print, actually, which is very exciting. A few years ago, pre-COVID, I was in LA and went into The Last Bookstore, and the one thing they had Alex. I was thrilled that Alex was the one that was there. So if you can find Alex and the Ironic Gentleman that was quite seminal as it’s my first book. But if you can’t, yes, go with The Explorers because that’s out there. That’s Random House. 

FB
Thank you so much. This has been a real pleasure. You have such a diverse creative life. I think it’s really inspiring. 

AK
Thanks for having me. It’s so nice to see you again.


For the latest updates & news about All Things Alice,  please read our blog and subscribe to our podcast!

All Things Alice: Interview with Tom Schulman

As an amateur scholar and die-hard enthusiast of everything to do with Alice in Wonderland, I have launched a podcast that takes on Alice’s everlasting influence on pop culture. As an author who draws on Lewis Carroll’s iconic masterpiece for my Looking Glass Wars universe, I’m well acquainted with the process of dipping into Wonderland for inspiration.

The journey has brought me into contact with a fantastic community of artists and creators from all walks of life—and this podcast will be the platform where we come together to answer the fascinating question: “What is it about Alice?”

For this episode, it was my great pleasure to have Tom Schulman join me as my guest on this episode! Read on to explore our conversation and check out the whole series on your favorite podcasting platform to listen to the full interview.


FB

Let’s talk about the Writers Strike and the work you did on the negotiating committee. Our friend Ed Dector told me that you got a standing ovation for the work that you guys did, and the concessions that you got from the studios. What do you think? How do you think that’s going to translate moving forward? I believe you guys ratified it yesterday. It seems universal that you guys came out on top with almost all of the items that you were looking for.

TS

Obviously, you never get everything you want but I would say we got the vast majority. We certainly got something in every area we were asking for, which is unusual. There was nothing we put on the table that we didn’t make gains with. We didn’t leave any of the writers behind. As often happens with these negotiations, the companies figure out the comedy-variety writers are a very small minority of the Guild so the Guild would never hold out just for the comedy-variety writers so they tend to not give them anything, and the people who are making the deal, the negotiators for the Guild, essentially have to leave them behind. But that didn’t happen this time.

FB

What I’ve been hearing, though, is that the producers are going to be looking for smaller budgets. Which makes some sense because they were running rampant with their production costs. How do you think that’s going to affect the writers and the deal they have moving forward?

TS

They’ll blame it on us, of course, they’ll blame it on the WGA strike and the SAG strike. But this was happening anyway so I don’t really think it’s strike related. If anything, the strike was an opportunity for the companies to all contract at the same time, which is hard for any one company to do. It made it easier for them to all say, “Netflix has to contract, we all have to do it”. This was something that was coming.

FB

Your latest film, Double Down South, is a high stakes gambling movie about keno pool. I’ve known you for a very long time and you’ve written some amazing movies, but can you describe writing a script that you know you’re going to direct? Is the framework a little bit different?

TS

No. I write everything as if I were directing it as if I were making the movie on the page. To the extent that I feel like I need to describe things if it were just a script for me, maybe I’d leave those things off. But it’s gonna go out to artists, crew, actors, and so forth so it needs to read exactly the way a regular script would read.

FB

This story is really about an outsider breaking in. That’s a very popular trope, especially if you do it well. What do you think it is about the underdog story that resonates with viewers?

TS

We are all in that situation at some point in our lives, at least most of us. People can relate to those feelings of being on the outside looking in and having to struggle to find your way in a world that is not as familiar as it hopefully will be at some point. That sense that everybody knows everything about this except you so you’ve got to somehow find your way through all that.

FB

Describe the movie for the listeners. I didn’t know anything about keno pool until I came to your screening. What was the inspiration?

A gritty set photo from the new film Double Down South, directed by Tom Schulman. Lili Simmons sizes up a shot while playing Keno Pool surrounded by other players.

TS

The inspiration was that I used to play that game back in my youth when I would visit pool halls. It’s an unusual game. It lasted about 100 years from the early 20th century to the end of the 20th century and it was banned in 17 states because it was such an intense gambling game. They put a very thin board on the top quarter of the table and the board has holes drilled in it for every ball in the pool rack and a double hole in the middle. There’s a little ramp up off the felt of the table onto the keno board and the board is very, very smooth. The holes in the board are drilled precisely, so unless you hit the hole exactly, the ball will loop out. It’s by far the hardest shot in pool, there’s nothing that even approaches how difficult it is to get a ball in its hole.

What’s diabolical about the game is this double hole. If you make a double on the break, the bet doubles, and you get paid double, and you get to break again. If you double on that break, the bet doubles again, and so forth. So, a novice, like I was the first time I played, can get into real trouble. The first time I played it, the guy who had won before it got to break and made a double. I got ready to give him $1, which was a lot of money to me at the time, and he said, “No, you don’t understand you owe me $2. It’s double.” So, I gave him another dollar. He makes another double and he said, “That’ll be $4.” And I’m like, Oh my God, $4. I said, “If you win on the break again, do I owe you $8?” And he said, “You’re a smart kid.” I said, “Well, I don’t have $8.” He said, “Well you got that watch you’re wearing.” Fortunately, he missed and I got ready to shoot, and somebody if I missed it’d be his turn again and then it starts all over. So, the first time I played I didn’t get to shoot.

FB

So, you really didn’t play.

TS

There was this woman who came into the pool hall every so often and played keno with all those guys. I was fascinated by her and made some notes very early in my career about her and then just forgot about it. Then right when COVID hit, I was thinking about what to do and I remembered her. I started making notes and then the story came to me about this woman who’s trying to make it in the man’s world of keno pool, which in this case is played at a falling apart plantation house way out in the sticks in Georgia, where the best come to play keno pool.

FB

What was terrific about it was the blending of suspense and drama with some comedy. What were you striving for in terms of tone for this film?

TS

I worked from story first. Story will give you those elements of tone but I think there’s always humor in any story because the interactions between people are going to create that. But those things give themselves to you as you write, staying on story, figuring out the dynamics between the characters, and so forth. As the story evolves to get to the ending is really all I do, and the humor just hopefully comes in the middle of that process.

FB

How was getting back in the director’s chair after many, many years?

TS

It was scary. Years ago, when I made 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, which I know bazillions of people haven’t seen, you deal with things like lack of sleep, feeling like you’re playing chess with the universe every day because the elements change so abruptly. You’re constantly rewriting for that sort of thing. So that really worried me and the lack of sleep on 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag was just a killer. I was getting three, or four hours a night and getting pretty frazzled. Some of the difficulties making that movie just made me really afraid to direct again. But this time, we had a great crew and a great cast. I still only got four hours of sleep, but I was never tired.

A photo from the new film Double Down South, directed by Tom Schulman. Lili Simmons leans over the table to make a shot while playing Keno Pool.

FB

But Double Down South is an independent film so it was a little smaller than 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, which was a studio movie, so you probably had more freedom on this one. But then with independent films, you have all these budgetary restrictions, which is what I confronted with Wicked. It was really fun to be making the movie and making the moves wherever you needed to make them but it was mistake after mistake and they compounded each other. On the studio movie, you have all these resources, and you have longer days and more staff and crew. So how did that play out in terms of the budget and the number of days and how you could make your days?

TS

It was really scary. We had nothing in the budget for overtime. You’re shooting a day and when that day is over, you’re out for the day and if you can’t get this done in 22 days, without overtime, then start figuring out what you can jettison.

FB

What happened on locations where you had to move and you were trying to get shots? Did you ever have to reduce the amount of coverage or did you get really creative?

TS

We were really only in three locations, the interior of the plantation house was one location, the exterior was several hundred miles away in South Carolina and we shot it in Georgia, and then the third was pretty close to that house in South Carolina. So, when we moved to South Carolina for the last four days of the shoot, it was pouring down rain, which is great for the atmosphere but hellish when you’re trying to shoot, and we had shots with moving cameras on cars, and the lens just got soaked. Fortunately, I had a cinematographer, Alan Caudillo, who has to be one of the fastest in the business. We’d be talking about whether I’d gotten all the coverage I needed on one side of the room and Alan would say, “Don’t even think about it. Let’s flip it and if you need something else, I can turn it back around in about four minutes.” That was a huge help. He had a great look at the same time. I also had a whole assistant direction department who would say, “Unless we bother you, you’re doing fine.” They took a lot of pressure off and it was terrific to not have people hitting their watches and going “We’re in trouble,” more than twice throughout the whole shoot.

FB

You also had a good friend in Kim Coates as the star, a friend of ours who we’ve golfed with for many, many years. I’m assuming based on what you just said, the schedule didn’t allow you guys to play any rounds of golf during the shooting. But Kim, as a good friend, I’m sure was a great collaborator.

A gritty set photo from the new film Double Down South, directed by Tom Schulman. Kit Coates watches as Justin Marcel McManus lines up a shot while playing Keno Pool

TS

Kim was a prince and we had four or five days of rehearsals, which you sort of have to have in a movie like this. If we had had to spend time each morning during the shoot figuring out the scene and rehearsing it, we would have never made it on that schedule. So, a week of rehearsals allowed us to make the movie in the way we did and Kim was 100% there the whole time. The actors all stayed in the same Victorian bed and breakfast and bonded, which helped to create the dysfunctional family that is in the movie.

FB

You discovered the lead actress, Lili Simmons, right?

TS

She had already been discovered to a certain extent. She had a big part in a series called Banshee, a really terrific show which was not as successful as it should have been. She’s been working since she was 18 or 19 years old and has done a lot of great stuff.

FB

She really did an amazing job and captured the essence of that sense of the outsider in that character. And she really pulled off the pool playing.

TS

Our friend Matt Craven, is an actor and also a phenomenal pool player, volunteered to spend as much time as necessary to teach her how to play pool. They played every day for a couple of weeks and she got pretty good. She made a couple of doubles.

FB

You went on a film festival tour and won the Audience Award for Best Feature at the Omaha Film Festival and the Jury Award for Best Feature at the Cordillera International Film Festival. Congratulations. What was that like?

TS

It’s so exciting. In this day and age, it’s not typical to even get to see your movie with an audience at all. In this case, I’ve seen it at five or six festivals, and it’s really fun to see a crowd react to the movie.

FB

Years ago, when I read the script for 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, it made me laugh out loud, and I thought it was going to be really successful. Then you had a really difficult experience. What happened on that movie in terms of, the little 1000 cuts that took away from the vision you had originally created in the script, which felt so funny and vibrant? Was it a casting thing?

TS

We cast a part that was not the lead first, over my objections and way early. To make a cast work, you’re always making sure that chemistry is right. We might have cast Andy Comeau, who plays the lead, anyway but we ended up casting opposite this other character. Ultimately, that was driving all the decisions about not only the casting but the writing, which had to change to accommodate the casting. It was infuriating and quite obvious to me that you cast your lead first and then everybody else is in orbit around the lead. I would say that was the biggest mistake.

FB

I think people are interested in why movies turn out so bad. The point is you make these early choices and you can’t catch up. I mean, I think it was Hitchcock who said, “90% of a successful movie is casting.” So, you had a 10% chance and that’s really unfortunate. Then I guess because you’re a first-time director, people feel like they have more leverage and power over you. But then you’re the one who’s in director jail as if you made all these creative mistakes and you don’t get to direct a movie for 10 years.

Actor, Joe Pesci holding a gun to the head of another actor, while David Spade looks on. This is a scene from the 1997 film: 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag.

TS

I remember the night after the movie premiered and the studio, Orion Pictures, pretty much dumped it because they sold itself to MGM two weekends before we opened. On the Monday before the movie opened, I got a call from the head of marketing at Orion, who said, “I just want to say I’m sorry. I can’t tell you right now, but you’ll know by the end of the week.” It was really painful. Then of course, the morning after it opened, my phone rang at 4:30 in the morning and it was my ex-agent who said to me, “Schulman. Five years.” And I said, “What do you mean?” He goes, “Director jail. Five years.”

FB

That’s terrible. Let’s go back to when you first came into the business because you had a really crazy successful run in the late 80s and early 90s. Is it true that Dead Poets Society was your first produced movie?

TS

I had written two movies that I sold as spec scripts that ended up being made at ABC as movies of the week and bear very little resemblance to what I wrote. Then I sold a script called Love at Second Sight about a psychic detective agency solving crimes that haven’t been committed yet. But that got eviscerated too and just plummeted into the ocean maybe six months before Dead Poets came out. My parents came out here and we went to a screening of Second Sight at Warner Brothers. In the end, my dad just leaned over to me and said, “You better find something else to do with your life.” Well, well, wait,

FB

Tell me about your mom and dad and your writing and your aspirations versus theirs. What did that look like at the dinner table?

TS

My parents were great about that. My dad was a doctor and I had gone to college as pre-med. I was doing well and I said to Dad, “I think I’m gonna go ahead and commit and go to medical school.” He said, “You grew up with me as a doctor. Do you really want to do that? Did you pay close attention to what my life was like, in the early days, and how little I saw of you? I’ve loved part of it, but I haven’t loved it all. Think about it.” And I thought to myself, “Maybe I don’t really want to do this.” So, two, three years later, when I started getting interested in making movies, they were like, “Writer? Director? You’ve never been a particularly good writer. You make Bs on your essays. But if that’s what you want to do, give it a shot.”

I got into USC film school and came out here and was kind of too cool for school and quit. And they were like, “What’s going on? What’s happening with you out there?” It was a dozen years of being in the wilderness, waiting for something to happen. My parents were supportive and worried at the same time.

FB

Let’s talk about those dozen years and where story comes from and the ideas you mentioned at the top of the show. At the beginning, what was coming to you in terms of things that you thought would make good movies?

TS

I started writing horror films. I had gotten very lucky that after I quit USC, I was sitting on a wall trying to figure out what to do and this guy walked up to me and said, “Little Tommy Schulman? I was a teacher at your high school. I heard you were out here.” I told him what was going on so he sent me to a place called the Actors and Directors lab that was run by Jack Garfield, who had been a theater and film director, and brilliant teacher, and I enrolled in that workshop the next day. The first class I was at, I was sitting in the back just trying to figure out what the hell was going on and one guy walked in and said, “I just got a contract to make 75 educational films over the next three years and I need a crew. Anybody in here done that?” I had worked making commercials in Nashville so I raised my hand and I had a job for the next five years. We’d make the film in three weeks, take two weeks off, then do it again.

So, I had two weeks in between every cycle to write and about two years into it, his wife met some people who wanted to finance a low-budget movie. He came in one Monday and said, “I need a script by Friday. Can anybody write a script by Friday? I’ll pay you $5,000.” I raised my hand and they asked what I wanted to do. I said that if we were gonna make a low-budget movie, let’s make a horror film. He said, “How about a mummy movie?” So, I wrote a script called Sarcophagus about this mummy that is brought to a university atrium. It was pretty scary and my boss liked it but the backers were Mormons and said they couldn’t back a horror film. Eventually, they came to me and said they liked the script, they just couldn’t do it but they offered to pay me to write another movie. So, I wrote a script called Mondo Jocko with my friend Paul Davidson, which was sort of Kentucky Fried Movie or Everything You Want to Know About Sex but in the world of sports. The Mormons loved it and they let me shoot a day of it as a test. But the night after they screened it, the lead producer died of a heart attack, and long story short, it never got made. But now I had this little horror film Sarcophagus and Mondo Jocko as sample scripts. I sent them out and ended up getting an agent, Bettye McCartt, who, as it turned out, was one of the important people behind the scenes in the making of The Godfather. She was Al Ruddy’s assistant at Paramount and she knew the ropes at the studio. Anyway, she became my first agent. Then it was writing spec scripts, mostly thrillers, horror films, and stuff like that.

Actor, Robin Williams, sitting in a classroom in a scene from the film: Dead Poets Society.

FB

You’ve had a number of comedies like What About Bob? and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. But then you had this major drama, Dead Poets Society, that you won an Academy Award for. After that, did the folks in town want you to write other dramas? How did that all work?

TS

They wanted comedies. Honey came out a few weeks after Dead Poets came out and Honey made more money and was more reproducible. They consider movies like Dead Poets Society, as a kind of one-off, so if you have another idea that sparks them or really hits them in the gut, they’ll do it. But they wanted more comedies, more mass-market comedy.

FB

Did you have an actor in mind when you were writing Dead Poets Society? Or was it just the story, as you said earlier?

TS

That story started working its way into my brain in the late 70s, early 80s. I had a girlfriend and we would go out for sushi many nights a week, and I would start telling her about that story. She kept saying, “Keep working on that. I love that teacher.” I wrote a draft in maybe 1983 and it was all about the teacher and it didn’t work so I put it in a drawer. Two years later, I woke up and went, “Oh, it’s about the students. It’s about his effect on the students.” And then the story started to really put itself together.

My agent sent it to Steven Haft in the early going. Steven had made a movie with Robert Altman and was trying to get stuff made. He read it and liked it and then nothing happened. What happened was a director named Jeff Kanew had a deal at Disney to make a musical. He was looking for somebody to write an ensemble movie and an agent sent him Dead Poets Society. He called back and said, “I don’t want to make this musical anymore. I want to direct that.” So, the studio bought it for him. Then came the problem of casting it, his ideas and theirs were different. He couldn’t get Robin Williams at the time to say yes. Robin wouldn’t say no but he supposedly had some misgivings about the director, which turned out to be true. But anyway, it didn’t work. So, Disney eventually gave him the chance to set it up somewhere else with other actors who were not well known. He couldn’t get that done and then it reverted to the studio and they eventually got Peter Weir to direct it.

FB

How lucky all of these little steps along the way were to get to the final product, which won the Academy Award for you.

Were you on the set rewriting because Robin Williams was so known for improvising? How was all that managed?

TS

The bizarre thing was that, from the first day, Robin was always so on script. He knew it word for word. It just didn’t have any life to it. I was panicking and we only had Robin for one day and then he was going off to do a play in New York for two weeks, and then we would get him back. I was standing by Peter after each day going, “Oh, my God.” And he goes, “I know, I know. Just be quiet. We’ll fix it.” And nothing happened. So, Robin left, and I said to Peter, “What are we going to do?” He goes, “We got two weeks to figure it out.” So, when Robin got back to set, Peter had him do an improvisation. We were in the classroom and improv was, “If you wanted to teach these kids something, what would you teach them?” He decided to do Shakespeare and he did that improvisation that’s in the movie where he’s John Wayne doing Macbeth. As soon as Robin was improvising, he understood what he was not doing with the script, which is that the dialogue is just like stand-up, you’re looking at the kids to see if they’re getting what you want. You’re teasing them, you’re cajoling, and doing all that stuff. He just got it immediately after that and it was full of life, and problem solved.

Actor and comedian, Robin Williams, standing in the center of a group of young men posing for a photo. From the set of Dead Poet's Society.

FB

When you were talking with your girlfriend and you were working on the character, in the original script, how much of your history is in it? Because it’s a movie that’s about nonconformity. Your father actually pushed you away from following the path of conforming to what he did. It seems like those two came together to, at least mathematically, really tell a personal story.

TS

I write to understand what I think. That’s what happened here. You just start writing this teacher and pretty soon you figure out what he’s about. I always knew he would be in this tightly wound institution. The rebellion against that environment came naturally.

FB

And the casting of the of the students was really magnificent. They all felt so lived in. Your characters often feel lived in. How do you get to that point? What are you thinking, and trying to create that has that feeling? Because they were some of the most lived-in teen characters that I’ve ever seen in cinema.

TS

It’s partly the writing and partly the direction and the casting. From the writing standpoint, once I understand the function of a character in a story, I cast around in my mind for people I know from my life. It could have been somebody in kindergarten or in college or after college, but who do I know that would fit the role of that character? Enough that I can put their face and their person in that character. Every character is cast out of my life that way. They’re behaving the way I think they would behave, and maybe that gives it more life.

FB

You did take acting classes for a while. I’m assuming you were taking acting classes not as much to become a great actor but to improve your writing or directing and how to work with actors.

TS

I understood the mechanism. I certainly did not have the courage or the sense of freedom to be able to just let go in front of even the small audiences we had. When I started the Actors and Directors lab, I told Jack I wanted to direct and he said, “Then you’re gonna have to act.” That was forced on me and for good reason because the process of acting and the process of writing and directing they’re all very connected.

FBIndecent Proposal was an unusual development process in terms of you didn’t write it, but you optioned the book.

Image from a scene in the movie: Indecent Proposal, featuring Robert Redford and Demi Moore playing poker.

TS

My next-door neighbor was Alex Gartner, who at the time was working for a company that was making an early version of The Handmaid’s Tale. Alex was reading Indecent Proposal, and he would come over every morning at like seven to play ping-pong for an hour before he went off to work. And we would talk about the book while we played. The basic premise of the book is a billionaire paying a woman a million dollars for one night. It seemed like a really interesting idea, but the way it was worked out in the book, not so much. Alex and I had optioned the book for next to nothing and I took it to Teddy Zee at Paramount, who was a junior executive there, and Teddy loved it and bought it. Alex and I both thought we needed a woman writer for the project, it should be told from the woman’s point of view. So, we hired Amy Holden Jones to adapt the novel. By the time we turned in the script, Teddy had moved to Sony, the regime who bought it were no longer there, but the new guys really wanted to make it.

They inadvertently tipped their hand as to how much they wanted it because they didn’t know that they owned it when we turned in the script. So, they called me on Monday and said, “Oh my God we have to have this. What do we have to pay for this?” So, just being kind of impish I said, “Well, I’m gonna have to think about it.” They said, “Oh, please don’t do this to us. Please have lunch with us.” So, we met in the executive dining room and I just tormented them before I finally said, “You know, you own it already.” They really really wanted to make the movie so we had some leverage.

FB

That’s an amazing experience. Other than that, what would you say are the most enjoyable moments that you’ve had either working on a set or writing a script where you felt so in the zone or having an actor take your script?

TS

There have been so many good ones. Obviously, the Dead Poets Society experience was so amazing, having Robin and that cast and Peter, who was so collaborative. He just said, “I want you here. Feel free to say anything you want.” Robin was just such an easy person to work with and such a good guy. That would be the standout. Double Down South was a great experience, as well. I love the cast; they were just all so involved. It was a pretty small crew, only about 40 people or so. Everybody was really working together and they were so supportive. A great way to get this thing done. As a director it was unbelievable. I did have one scene that I had to reshoot because I woke up in the middle of the night and went, “Oh, my God, I blew that scene.” The A.D. department just said, “We don’t know how, but we will make this work. We’ll get you in there.”

FB

What was your first introduction to Alice in Wonderland?

A black and white drawing of people playing chess. From Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland".

TS

I’d read Alice in Wonderland, probably freshman year in high school. I had a teacher who essentially told us, this is almost like a puzzle within a story within a puzzle. Then in college, I took a class where Alice was on the curriculum, and we read a book called The Annotated Alice. Which is, oh, my God, you can tell every word, every phrase, every sentence, every paragraph, every character. The depth of the thing is staggering to the point where you can’t really even absorb it all. It’s so amazing. So, I knew Alice had been written by a genius, and therefore, I was too intimidated. It’s a book that’s almost a key to a whole universe that is not there on the page. So how do you absorb that? Hats off to you for taking it in this other direction with The Looking Glass Wars.

FB

I know you’re into politics, and I don’t know if you’ve seen how many headlines there were during the Trump Administration that said “We’re down the rabbit hole. We’re through the Looking-glass. We’re all mad here.” And Kushner just came out and said the best way to contextualize the Trump presidency was through Alice in Wonderland.

TS

Absolutely. Metaphorically, Alice in Wonderland has probably been used in that way as much as any modern text out there. It stands the test of time that way. Nothing like it has really survived, has it?

FB

Think about Winter Wonderland, and how often we’re using it to describe magical places. I suppose Middle Earth or Oz, are equivalents they use a lot. But Wonderland is really part of our language.

TS

But once you get to Middle Earth, and you understand the rules, then it’s consistent. Wonderland is always changing. It’s always morphing. You can’t really feel grounded there. It’s hard to find something like that but it’s so ungrounded that people could stick with it.

FB

This is why there have been very few Alice in Wonderland adaptations that have been successful, except Tim Burton’s. But the second movie didn’t really work because there’s not a grounded logic to the world, which is what I’ve attempted to do with The Looking Glass Wars. I wanted to bring a kind of Middle Earth style where there are rules and governance and logic to it.

If you were to describe your golf game using Alice in Wonderland as a metaphor, what would that be?

TS

I would have to say I’m like the Mad Hatter.

FB

You’re not Humpty Dumpty?

TS

I’m the Mad Hatter with the notion of a little bit of anger all the time.

FB

Thanks for sharing all those great stories and the ups and downs of the creative process. And congrats on your new movie. Where can where can folks see Double Down South?

TS

It’s going to be at the Three Rivers Film Festival in Pittsburgh in mid-November, and then it’s coming out in about 60 cities in mid-January for about a month and then it’ll be on all platforms.

FB

Well, it’s a terrific movie and I’m sure audiences will find it. Thanks for coming on.

TS

This was so much fun. I’m so glad you had me on the podcast.

Image of Hollywood Director, Tom Schulamn, known for blockbuster films like Dead Poets Society. Here he is sitting in from of a brick wall, at a desk with some old books on it, while smiling for the camera, about to be interviewed by Author, Frank Beddor.

For the latest updates & news about All Things Alice,  please read our blog and subscribe to our podcast!

All Things Alice: Interview with Jendia Gammon

As an amateur scholar and die-hard enthusiast of everything to do with Alice in Wonderland, I have launched a podcast that takes on Alice’s everlasting influence on pop culture. As an author who draws on Lewis Carroll’s iconic masterpiece for my Looking Glass Wars universe, I’m well acquainted with the process of dipping into Wonderland for inspiration.

The journey has brought me into contact with a fantastic community of artists and creators from all walks of life—and this podcast will be the platform where we come together to answer the fascinating question: “What is it about Alice?”

For this episode, it was my great pleasure to have Jendia Gammon join me as my guest! Read on to explore our conversation and check out the whole series on your favorite podcasting platform to listen to the full interview.

A group of books by Jendia Gammon on a blue background. The Questrison Saga's "Accretion Book Three", The Shadow Galaxy and The Inn at Amethyst Lantern. This image is the title card for the All Things Alice Podcast by Frank Beddor, where he interviews Jendia Gammon, which is a pen name for Dianne Dotson.

FB

I need to clarify something. Dianne Dotson, is that your real name?

DD

I have two pen names. The self-published pen name is J. Dianne Dotson and I also have Jendia Gammon. Jendia is a combination of Jennifer and Dianne and Gammon is my maiden name. I had self-published under J. Dianne Dotson and I had a couple of book deals before I got an agent. Those books are out this year, The Shadow Galaxy and The Inn at the Amethyst Lantern, and are under J. Dianne Dotson but that will not be my name going forward. I have a lot of projects already out under Jendia Gammon. I have a story, “Copper”, in the latest Interzone Magazine, which is a wonderful magazine that everybody should subscribe to. I have stories in multiple anthologies coming out as well as magazines. My traditional pen name going forward is Jendia Gammon and I won’t be going back to Datson. But with the new release coming out, you can still find me under that name.

FB

Let’s talk about the theory behind a pen name because it’s hard to get one’s name out there ever, let alone with multiple names. If you’re a super-famous writer, sometimes that happens, but what’s the thinking for you in using these pen names?

DD

Doing the split from indie publishing to traditional is one factor, but it isn’t the only one. I have lost both my parents. My mother passed away earlier this year and I really wanted to dig back into my heritage, the Gammon family from East Tennessee with our Irish ancestry. In a way, I’m honoring my parents and their memories. I wouldn’t be the writer I am without my dad, who was a storyteller and indie-published author. My mother worked in publishing and it was sort of destiny that I would not only become a writer but I would also eventually form my own publishing company, which I am doing with my husband, Gareth L. Powell.

I really wanted to distinguish between those two phases of my life. I self-published The Questrison Saga and then got a couple of deals under my belt before moving forward with traditional publishing. I have books on submission right now with my agent, one of which is a high-fantasy dragon and the other is a sci-fi horror thriller. I’m also working on a very campy, Southern California-based horror novel due in December which is very raw and funny. I’m writing in multiple genres for multiple age groups.

For my purposes, changing my pen name was a split of meaningful life moments, and returning to my heritage and Jendia was an old nickname. I liked it for SEO purposes for the web because Jendia is more unique. I’m a content manager for a biotech career-related website so that’s at the forefront of a lot of my thinking. Also, I know a couple of British authors who have three pen names. One of them is John Courtney Greenwood. Then there’s the author Stark Holborn, who writes science fiction under that name but uses two entirely different names for two other types of books, one of which is historical fiction, and the other is for cozy mystery. I think it’s important that if you’re going to write something wildly different from your primary genre, you might want to consider a different pen name because you develop a certain persona for each one. But then again, I also do feel strongly that as Jendia Gammon, I want to be like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, and write everything I feel like writing. I do feel though, that science fiction, fantasy, and horror are my brand. That is the Jendia Gammon brand.

FB

Do you think of being gender-neutral when you’re picking a pen name? I’ve noticed some authors do that because they’re writing a lot of characters who are not their gender, or they’re writing in a sci-fi space that is historically prejudiced against certain genders.

DD

I think traditionally, in the 19th century into the early 20th century, quite often you would have initials only if it was a woman writer so they could pretend to be a male writer because you weren’t given the same space. Although Mary Shelley, bless her, bucked the trend on that one, and without her, we wouldn’t have modern science fiction as we have it, and maybe not horror either. But then I think of one of my favorite authors, L.M. Montgomery. She didn’t have to be L.M., she could have been Lucy Montgomery. But, in the early 1900s perhaps it was more favorable for her and maybe she actually liked that. But I do feel that it isn’t necessary to do that today. I view the The Questrison Saga as a success and I was J. Dianne. The reason I picked J. Dianne was because I love L. Frank Baum.

Cartoon book pencil drawing from L. Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz", with Dorothy comforting the cowardly Lion, while two Scarecrows and Toto, the dog look on.

FB

One of my favorites.

DD

Those original Oz books had a huge influence on me and my wacky worlds. Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland did as well. Those two definitely shaped me and my early reading history particularly.

FB

Tell me about Alice and your early influences. Was it something that your parents introduced to you? They seem to have been very influential. I can feel how important that upbringing and your parents’ influences have been on you and how you want to honor that. You also seem to have really honored it in your work ethic and in the stories you’re telling.

DD

Thank you. They were quite different people. I’m much more my father’s daughter, but at the same time, I certainly have my mother’s pragmatism. My father was the dreamer, the journeyman, and the writer. My mother was down to earth. She was the editor, the lineup type operator.

A lot of the mythology that I read was directly due to Dad’s love for mythology. But then again, while I don’t have the same attention to detail that my mother had, I know how important it is and I’m looking at everything that way. But they didn’t introduce Alice to me. My sister did. I’m the baby by almost 10 years. I had three older siblings who were teenagers starting in the 70s, so it was a hot mess when I was born. But my sister would read to me when I was a little bitty thing and she read Alice in Wonderland to me many times. I had crazy white blond hair so instantly I was like, “Oh, I’m obviously Alice.” It was also important for me to have adventures on my own, separate from these legendary older siblings, who are all dynamos in completely different ways. Of course, I identify with Alice in that regard, having your own adventures and being independent was huge to me. I loved Alice for that, and I loved the dreamlike and strange qualities of Wonderland and the Looking-glass world. I actually really love looking Through the Looking Glass. When I was in sixth grade, I performed “The Jabberwocky” in front of the entire class.

I was a super nerd and to be up in front of these kids and just be full of gusto was just absolutely horrifying but empowering at the same time because I was doing something related to something I loved. But that was absolutely the first moment of like, being a true dramatic person.

FB

You talked about the whimsy of Alice in Wonderland, but a lot of people interpret the story as horror, because of what happens with Alice. You have the same interpretation I have which is, that there are all these creatures and there’s all this chaos but in the middle of it, Alice is keeping her head, as long as the Red Queen is not around. I did not read it as horror yet quite a few people have, what do you make of that?

DD

The thing about Alice in both stories is that she’s finding out about herself and that can be very scary, no matter your age. Using the mirror, as a comparison, she’s looking in a mirror and reflecting upon herself. That’s her looking glass. A reader coming into that may not be quite ready to look in the mirror. There might be monsters on the other side of that glass that they haven’t slain yet or dealt with or escaped. I think that’s where the horror interpretation is coming from. How comfortable are you with yourself and your journey? Some of it is frightening on paper. The Jabberwocky is quite terrifying. You would not want to run into that fella in a dark alley. But at the same time, knowing there’s this allegory within the journey is what matters more to me. But not everybody is comfortable going into that space.

FB

The journey of self-discovery in the story is really powerful and has always resonated with me.

DD

It’s probably because of Alice that I channel that in a lot of my characters, who are going through a journey of self-discovery, at times, it is terrifying, and other times, it’s wonderful in ways they didn’t anticipate. Like in The Inn at the Amethyst Lantern, the main character has to become a leader. She’s a 14-year-old in this futuristic lunar punk society that is faced with a threat from our time that she has no point of reference for and she’s got to rally not only herself and her own insecurities, but an entire team of teenagers to stop another apocalypse.

Book Cover for "The Inn at the Amethyst Lantern" by J. Dianne Dotson, featuring a young girl, shrouded in purple light from the lighthouse, and holding a teal, aquamarine colored moth, with her back turned to the audience.

FB

Do you think that’s why Alice has resonated for over 150 years? Thematically it is very adaptable to a new era and we keep re-inventing it to reflect what’s going on right now. For me, the world is so upside down and so chaotic. Facts are not facts and logic is not logic. So the illogical world of Wonderland and the adventure that Alice is on feels exactly like what’s going on.

DD

Looking-glass too, because I’ve heard the phrase so many times in the past few years, “We’re really through the looking-glass now.” With any fracture point in human history where there’s been a massive event, such as a World War, political crisis, or pandemic, we have the instant reaction of wanting to cling to something familiar. But then we look at that thing and we suddenly see a new meaning in it. We see ourselves in it again, but not as children. Maybe we could see ourselves as children starting over again, because we’ve had to reboot and reboot and reboot, again through major loss on a big scale. A lot of people don’t want to look at it like that. They want to go back to their regular world, they don’t want to be in this weird new world again. Then other people thought their old world was crap and they want to be in Wonderland or make their own Wonderland. I think some people have really tapped into that, which is what I’ve been doing with my stories. We just were attaching meaning because we feel like we’re dangling so we need to grab for something. Finding all these different interpretations fascinates me but it makes sense in the context that we’re just trying to figure this out as a society and as individuals.

FB

You hear Winter Wonderland a lot because it represents a magical, happy, beautiful cloud, the idea of escaping into a better place. You hear “down the rabbit hole” and “we’re all mad here all the time.” Interestingly, it finds its way into politics and pop culture. Alice seems to be a muse for us creators and writers. Mine’s pretty direct but in all the people I’ve interviewed, they’re often talking about just what you suggested, a time in your life where you were introduced to it and you took that inspiration, that theme and you put it into one of your stories.

DD

Sometimes that wasn’t even intentional. Sometimes I look back and go, “Oh, my God, it’s obvious now.” There’s this sibling relationship. There’s this girl who has to go into an unprecedented situation with a lot of monsters and weird stuff. The line is right there. That template of having that at a young age is so interesting. I wonder what it must be like as an adult to discover Wonderland. It would be amazing to get that perspective.

FB

I think people pull this collective history of Alice into their thinking, so you can’t separate all these years of influence. So usually people are, they’re trying to figure out the influence. Is it really the original? Or is it the Jefferson Airplane song plus the Beatles song plus The Matrix? It’s a tapestry.

DD

You hear the phrase “red-pilled” all the time, right?

FB

And it was “eat me” and “drink me” in the Lewis Carroll stories. So it’s gonna continue to morph and influence culture. You talked about The Wizard of Oz and Gregory Maguire’s Wicked was a big deal. I called Gregory when I started writing The Looking Glass Wars for advice and he told me to do a musical. Because, with the first novel, he had sold about 500,000 books, which wasn’t anything compared to what happened with the musical.

DD

That was a true phenomenon. It’s interesting to think about how stories eventually become myths. It’s quite possible that Alice is starting to enter mythology, as is Dorothy. These are new myths, as is Luke Skywalker. These are our new fairy tales versus ones that are ancient. So, these become the new myths and the new fairy tales.

FB

I’m glad you brought that up because I’m interested in myth and folklore in storytelling and I do like that idea of a new myth. One of the archetypes is obviously good and evil. But lately, I’ve been thinking about what people are looking for thematically. Yes, good and evil. But it seems to me that people are wondering what’s real. Because the world seems so fake and when facts are not facts, then what do you have to hold on to? What do you think?

DD

I’ve seen both things going on, where people go back, but then it’s all fantasy because nostalgia tricks us. It’s the pill we take when we choose to not want to believe reality. Our own stream of reality, what we’ve been through in our lives and culture is itself a constantly evolving and nebulous thing. If we stopped the present, what are we now? But we often think in terms of, “Oh, that was a better time”. But if you really were there and you experienced it, was it really a better time? It’s a matter of kind of collectively wanting to forget, wanting to toss the sting and sip the honey. So there’s that coming into play. Now we have the “wonderful” A.I. coming on. Say nothing of taking some of our writers and artists’ jobs. But, like in Blade Runner, we’re very much questioning what makes us human. How do we retain our humanity in a world in which AI is increasingly prevalent? Technology has unified us in ways that would seem miraculous, but at the same time, it’s easier to split off into our own little pockets.

FB

You have a deep background in science, you write science articles, and you work for a biotech company. You write space operas, I think of Star Wars or Dune, which is one of my favorites.

So how do you take that technology and cultural relevance and craft your worlds?

Book cover for "The Shadow Galaxy - A collection of short stories and poetry" by J. Dianne Dotson. This cover is a black and white mountain valley, with a dark red, starry sky, where the galaxy above looks like a human eye.

DD

The Shadow Galaxy is a collection of short stories and poetry and there are sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and some fairy tales, set in Appalachia. One in particular is relevant right now, and it’s called “Roder” and it’s a heartbreaker story. It involves a human woman who discovers a robot she falls in love with, like the movie Her. But we become attached to these artificial people and science fiction, it’s often a trope, but it’s understanding our own humanity by considering the other of the artificial person. I think that building from the grounding of, you always want to appeal to someone’s humanity, no matter if you’re writing something that’s set in deep space, or underground in a cave, or in some strange realm that appears on a foggy night. But you also have to introduce that feeling of uncertainty and to do that you need to think ahead in terms of, what if this fantastic thing happened? Or what if this really terrible thing happened? How do we react? I always like to frame the science in everything that I write, because I like to insert ecology in fantasy, science fiction, and horror. In fact, in the dragon book that’s on submission right now, there’s a lot of ecology to it and there’s a lot of environmental interaction between different species. Frank Herbert’s Dune is a good example of using ecology. I don’t always stick to what I know but I like a grounding, just so a reader can connect with something that exists in the real world, even if they’re being transported to another place.

FB

I like how you mix science fiction with fantasy. But how would you describe the difference between high fantasy and sci-fi? Obviously, there’s all the space and alien components but from a world-building perspective, in terms of whether it’s creating the magic or the technology behind the weapons or the science, what’s in your head? Do you do a lot of research?

DD

It depends on how grounded you want to be. For example, I took a long sword class because there was a character who has to learn how to wield a sword and I needed to know how that feels and what you would need to do. So, there is research that you need to do if you’re doing a sword and sorcery story but the technology in most fantasy realms is magic. That is the main form of technology but you do have other forms of tech. You have swords and staffs and things like that. It depends on what level you want to play in. Is it a magic sword or just a regular sword?

A lot of times people like to say that magic is technology we haven’t invented yet, and there’s something to that. We’re often inspired by these fantastical stories to come up with something that would have seemed like magic 100-200 years ago. That was one thing that I thought Star Trek did really well because on the face of it, it seems like science fiction but they were doing some pretty fantastical things. But it’s nice to come around the world thinking that way. I’ve got technology and physics, or the skewering of physics depending on how hard sci-fi it is, versus introducing any fantasy element into the sci-fi. The spectrum of strictly adhering to science as we know it, versus projecting something that could be that we just don’t know yet.

Because I have a science background, I have a bias toward wanting to get more of that into my work no matter what genre it is. However, my husband, Gareth L. Powell, does not have a science background, and he writes science fiction novels so you can do some research. I do encourage it because scientists love it when you ask. For the thriller I just recently finished, I had to talk to somebody at NASA about something they’ve been working on because I needed to have a real-world parallel or at least a comparison and I wanted to make sure that I had some things right. So they don’t mind at all, reach out to them. It depends on your level because I do know some sci-fi writers who have never done the research and that’s gutsy. I wouldn’t be able to do that. But at the same time, they might be coming up with things that project their other perspective onto something that could potentially help us in the future that scientists could then take.

FB

What about the characters’ dialogue? If it’s a sci-fi story and you’re dealing with scientific topics or eccentric things that are going on, you’re going to be putting words in their mouth. Then in a fantasy world, it could be a language or terminology that you completely invent. But at the heart of it, how do you pierce the humanity in the magic and the technology? That’s what people really care about in the melodrama of the space opera.

DD

I like to tap into characters who are trying to figure out who the heck they are. So I keep going back to that well and asking each character who they are. A friend of mine will set up a fake interview of each of his characters to ask them what their favorite things are, and what scares them. I think that’s a brilliant idea for building characters because it really grounds them as part of the world, that is world building is making a great character. You could have the most incredible setting out in the stars or another fantasy realm, but it does not matter if the characters don’t capture the imagination. You have to add that human element and the interactions with other species or people depending on your worlds and give tension or distrust, or friendship or love, or whatever it is. It’s so incredibly crucial to any story that you write.

FB

That’s what we humans crave. That’s what we relate to.

We met in 2017. We talked on the phone and I don’t recall how we met each other but I do recall you asking for advice. I want to tell my listeners that as a writer who’s been published and who traveled a lot, I have a lot of aspiring writers who’ve asked me for advice and told me about their books. And I never heard from them again. But for me to see your books start to come out over the years and you build up your portfolio of work and your readers has been really quite delightful and a joy. So, what were those words of wisdom that I shared that motivated you to this deep level of writing?

Image of all 4 book covers for the "Questrison Saga", featuring fantasy and sci-fi imagery of grand spaceships and space ports in other galaxies. Heliopause, Ephemeris, Accretion, Luminiferous are each of the 4 book titles.

DD

I had written the bones of The Questrison Saga when I was a young teen. After years of tumult in moves and then becoming a parent, I finally came back to it and finished it. But then I was floundering. What do I do with this thing? How do I get this out there? So then a mutual friend of ours was like, “Oh, you might want to talk to Frank Beddor.”

I had no idea of your history at all, so here we are having this conversation, and you said, “Tell me about Heliopause.” So I just tell you about it and you go, “That’s the best verbal pitch I’ve ever heard.” I was like, “Oh, cool.” But then I realized, “Oh my God, he’s a producer. He hears pitches all the time.” So that was a real confidence boost. I felt boosted anyway, but then coming back around and realizing that you hear pitches all the time, it was really wonderful. I really thank you for that because it did give me confidence and you read it in a very rough state. You encouraged me. You said there was a good story here and to get it polished and get it out there.

I originally wanted to self-publish because I knew we were at a state in which we could have a very high-quality self-published book and I knew nobody would want the saga the way I wanted it. But I did, after much cajoling, go through the court process and became close with several agents. But finally, I decided, “Not with this series. This is too close to me. I have to do this my way.” And I didn’t realize how much work that would mean and how much self-promotion but I’m glad that I did it because I got myself out there. You have to get yourself out there for readers to find your work if you don’t have a big publishing house behind you. So it was a lot of work and very satisfying. It taught me a lot about publishing which will be essential in starting my own imprint.

But you gave me such a great push at the right time and I thank you forever for that. Then we reconnected in 2019 when I was attempting to get some work in Hollywood and, at that time, we were talking about show bibles and that was good practice to come up with those things. It helped me think differently about making characters and describing them. That became relevant for making synopses for being on submission with an agent.

FB

The process of creating a synopsis and a mini-bible for a TV show is almost exactly the same for a book and a publisher or an agent. There are all these things that they want you to do on spec to get their attention. I’m happy I steered you and was one of the many people influencing your success.

But let’s go back to that first book, Heliopause. What were the choices in terms of being an independent publisher of your own books? I was really struck by the quality of your cover and the way that you dealt with the fonts and the title. These are really delicate, important issues that help people choose your book and publishers get really anal about their influence on that because I ended up using a lot of the artwork that I had commissioned and Penguin had to license the art for me to put it on my cover. But I was so thrilled because I love the artwork and I thought it was better than anything they could have come up with. But they’re also really good at it and I’ve made a few bad mistakes by trying to influence covers, especially in Germany, where I saw their artwork and I told them that can’t be the best artwork you could come up with but turns out, that’s what Germans like.

Fantastic science fiction painting of a very large space port, with spaceships docking and taking off, hovering in orbit over a blue planet.

DD

Tapping into culture is a really good point and something that I have to consider when I start publishing other authors’ books. For my purposes, I already had a very defined sense of what I wanted. I wanted to give a nod to Vincent Di Fate and John Berkey, classic sci-fi covers that looked painted. I didn’t want them to look too CGI. I wanted a classic look that was really vivid and gorgeous. The artist Leon Tukkar did the front and the back of these paperbacks. It’s a wonderful spread of art.

What you want is you want it to look like something you would go and pick off the shelf at a bookstore. You want it to look as though someone else did it. I see a lot of people started to use AI art, which I’m not fond of, for multiple reasons, because I like to pay artists for their work.

FB

Was it digital only to start with or did you print them as well?

DD

I did paperback and ebook through IngramSpark Lightning Source because they have global distribution and it’s print on demand for the paperbacks, so it’s freshly printed and shipped off from the distributor directly each time it’s ordered. Then they upload multiple forms of ebooks, everything from Kobo to Kindle and all the other formats to all the major booksellers. It’s slick. Really straightforward and simple.

FB

It’s so satisfying to have the finished book and, now for you, the finished series. How was this experience? Was it primarily for the love of the series, the creative part of it? Or were you able to make enough money that you would do it again? Or is that why you’re going to a publisher now? Tell me about your thinking and the financial realities of something like this.

DD

The financial reality is that you will spend a lot more doing this than you would have imagined unless you’re only doing ebooks, and the royalties are better if it’s an ebook only because you don’t have to deal with the supply of paper and that sort of thing. All the costs that go into making a physical book have jumped significantly in the past couple of years. The benefit of self-publishing is that you do have complete creative control and that’s highly appealing. I don’t just slap stuff up, though. I had two editors and I paid them, which is not cheap either. I think it is the most worthy expense aside from the cover art because you need somebody to read through it and offer advice and copy edits, and then you need a proofreader.

Then beta readers for sure. Because they’re gonna find something that none of the rest of us found because we all have looked at it too many times. Usually, I like to send them the manuscript pretty early, once I have edited it a few times and read through it. You need BETA readers because when you’re doing it yourself, you don’t have this whole team working on getting these books out. It’s only you and you need to invest in the right people to help you make these books the best they can be because people will absolutely respond if it’s poorly made or if there are glaring errors.

FB

Now that you have a traditional publisher, having that experience, will you ever go back to self-publishing?

DD

That’s a good question, and a little complex, considering I’m starting my own imprint, which is primarily meant to publish other authors but theoretically I could put my own book out on my own imprint at some point.

The Shadow Galaxy came out on March 3 and was published by Trepidatio, which is an imprint of JournalStone and then The Inn at the Amethyst Lantern is out from Android Press. Lantern is my first young adult novel and it’s sci-fi fantasy mixed and Shadow Galaxies is cross-genre. I have a short story collection related to The Questrison Saga. I need to decide if I want to self-publish but to be honest with you, the goal now, having an agent, is to get a pretty big publishing deal and get global reach because it’s just a different world. I don’t have a publicity team and even if I did, it wouldn’t match Big Five publishing. It depends on what you want to do. If you’re doing this just for the joy of it and you want to do the small circuit and go to all the cons and have a table, there’s beauty in that. You can sell a decent amount but you will be capped in your potential for the audience and potential for income, and, of course, you have your own expenses to add in. So you have to think about that. Also, you’re more likely with traditional publishing to have someone discover it and perhaps option it.

FB You have a big sales team that visits the independent bookstores regularly and they talk up the book. But even that pales in comparison to what they ask the author to do in terms of building a community of readers and fans, whether it’s through schools, comic cons, or speaking engagements. That is really the most crucial thing. Because once you have that community, and those early adopters and those people that really love your work, you already have your foot soldiers when you release a new book. They’re your beta readers. They’re out there spreading the gospel.

Image of J. Dianne Dotson, or Jendia Gammon sitting in a book store at a book signing event.

DD

That’s something that you can do even if you’re not like me. I’m an extrovert writer but I know a lot of writers are introverts as well and there are still avenues to build that community. What’s really interesting to me is people discovered The Questrison Sage in multiple ways. I had some discover me at a table at a con and just literally selling, throwing out my pitch every other minute. You have to have that sales pitch down.

FB

How did you come to rent a space or a table at a ComiCon? Who inspired that? Because that’s something that I did in 2005 and I was blown away by how many people wanted to buy books because I thought it was a comic book convention only. People loved reading and I thought, “This is the place to launch novels. I don’t know why all the publishers aren’t there.” How did you realize that was such a sweet spot to get your book out?

DD

I’m a nerd myself and I have been to some conventions, also, I just asked other writers what worked for them. So looking to people who are successful and constantly gathering that information because it changes with time and we have to adapt. Obviously, in 2020, we couldn’t have in-person events so we had to quickly pivot to online. That actually turned out to be pretty great and those online events are continuing. People from all over the world will join and they’re paying to see different writer’s perspectives and to learn how to write books and publish and promote and all these different things.

I take notes at every convention I’m at and I haven’t had a table in a few years, but I’ve been a panelist and that’s another way of getting support. You’re gonna have a huge audience that has never heard of you or your work before. I’ve been on Star Wars panels. I’ve been on panels about how to write psychologically rich characters. I made a panel for the Nebula Awards, based on an article I wrote called “The Ecology of World-Building” for the Science Fiction Writers Association. I’m gonna be part of a pretty impressive writers’ workshop at a university this coming spring and I will be leaning into ecology for genre fiction. So you lean into whatever your specialties are. But in terms of the actual boots-on-the-ground sales you have to decide if you want to invest the money to be there because it costs a lot depending on the convention. I started out small and CondorCon in San Diego was intimate and there were a lot of book-buying visitors. Honestly, splitting the cost of a booth or table with another writer is the best thing because not only does it save you both money, but you also have a booth buddy.

FB

I’m a fan of the smaller cons. They’re creator-driven and they’re more exploratory and they’ll take risks and try things, especially when it comes to selling. But what you said about the pitch is so true. You have to get that pitch down to 30 seconds.

DD

You also need your display to be very visually interesting. It also doesn’t hurt, in my case, to have my double chocolate brownies. But you can have a poster made of your book cover so it captures attention. That’s how I’ve sold a lot of books. First, you draw them in and then you give your pitch. They go with it or they don’t, but that visual is essential.

FB

I normally ask people, if they were a character from Alice in Wonderland, who they would be and why. But since you and I are both fans of the 14 Wizard of Oz books if you were one of the Wizard of Oz characters, who would you be?

DD

That’s really hard because I love so many of them. I love Ozma a lot. I loved it when she was kidnapped. That sounds terrible but she seemed too powerful at that point. She had been tipped and went back and forth, been the boy and then the girl, and then took her role as leader of Oz and she seemed a little too locked up in herself. Then she gets kidnapped. A powerful fairy queen gets kidnapped. Pretty incredible. I actually loved that because you saw more of her humanity than her fairy side. Of course, I love Dorothy.

Advertisment for the book, "Copper" by Jendia Gammon, Illustrated by Vinayak Varma. Featuring a fish-shaped robot, about to get prodded by the silhouette of a female protagonist.

I also love Tik-Tok, one of the first robots in literature. He was a wind-up copper round bowl of a fella and influenced one of my short stories. “Copper,” the short story, is about a robot in the near future who develops an interesting ability after his person undergoes tremendous grief. It’s a touching story and it’s kind of wacky, just like the Oz books and Wonderland. Copper is a very interesting character. I love riding robots. There are robots in a lot of my writing. Even The Inn of the Amethyst Lantern has some really interesting house bots that perform multiple functions depending on the time of day or night. I’ve always been fascinated by robots so Tick-Tock is one of my favorites, although the Sawhorse is pretty great, too. I’ve always loved the dynamic between the Tin Man and Scarecrow, and, as flawed as she was, Eureka was fascinating. I have actually illustrated Ozma and Billina, by the way, in the Art Nouveau style. I love illustrating the Oz characters.

FB

I’ve really enjoyed this. I’m a huge fan of Carl Sagan and he has a quote about imagination – “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it, we go nowhere.” You have used your imagination to carry us off in many different directions and stories, and I think my readers and listeners are going to enjoy discovering you and your work. I hope they’ll pick up some of your novels and enjoy them as much as I have. So, thank you for being on All Things Alice. It’s been a real pleasure.

DD

Thanks so much. It’s been great talking to you.


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All Things Alice: Interview with Bad Hats Theatre

As an amateur scholar and die-hard enthusiast of everything to do with Alice in Wonderland, I have launched a podcast that takes on Alice’s everlasting influence on pop culture. As an author who draws on Lewis Carroll’s iconic masterpiece for my Looking Glass Wars universe, I’m well acquainted with the process of dipping into Wonderland for inspiration.

The journey has brought me into contact with a fantastic community of artists and creators from all walks of life—and this podcast will be the platform where we come together to answer the fascinating question: “What is it about Alice?”

For this episode, it was my great pleasure to have Fiona Sauder, Landon Doak and Victor Pokinko of Bad Hats Theatre join me as my guests! Read on to explore our conversation and check out the whole series on your favorite podcasting platform to listen to the full interview.


FB

Thanks for being on the show. I’m always excited to talk to other creators who have used Alice as a muse to tell stories.

I want to talk about your theatre company, Bad Hats. Tell me the story.

FS

Bad Hats started in 2015. It was co-founded by me and an artist named Nicola Atkinson. And over time, through making work with friends that we’ve met through the community or school, we started to figure out how it was logical for this group of people to run a company. Everyone found their place in Bad Hats over the years and now we’ve got a cohort that spends all its time figuring out how to make space for writing and producing new musicals. Many of these are adaptations, likeAlice in Wonderland. The name Bad Hats came from a friend of mine in Ottawa. Their name is Megan and I bought us matching hats. Megan’s head is very small and the hat kept falling over their eyes and they kept going, “Bad hat. Bad hat.” Bad Hats Theater just had a ring to it. We just ran with it and it became an umbrella under which now all these fine folk sit with me.

VP

The other cool thing that we realized in recent years is that Bad Hat is a British-ism for sort of a bad egg or shit disturber, which suits us. We all started as actors, primarily and we grew into various roles, writers, composers, producers, directors, and music directors. But we’ve always been interested in shifting the paradigm within the industry and doing things a little bit differently.

FB 

Interestingly, you mentioned everybody started as actors, because, when you’re an actor, often you feel out of control because you’re waiting for somebody to give you an audition. It’s a very vulnerable place to be over a long period. I too started as an actor and was looking to empower myself by writing stories and suddenly that opens up a doorway to something else.

Fiona, you’re the writer, so you adapted Alice in Wonderland, and Landon and Victor, you both composed the music. The show is a contemporary spin on Wonderland that takes us down a rabbit hole with Alice, a girl with a lot of questions. What is your contemporary spin on Alice?

FS

We had done a production of Peter Panthat was very successful and ran for many years in Toronto, and around Ontario and is being licensed across Canada now. That was a flagship production for the company. Following that we knew we wanted to tell another story that could feel like it fell in sequence, after Peter. We felt like Alice was a character of a slightly older age than the story we had told with Peter so we blindly picked up the book, knowing some of the general pop culture stuff everybody knows about Alice and knowing the lore and fame and global adulation for the book. We didn’t know when we started what the spin would be. I had read it, making furious notes, and I remember when Landon read it for the first time, they called me on the phone, I said, “So what are your impressions? Where do you want to go with it? What do you want to do?” And the first thing Landon said was, “Have you noticed how many question marks there are on every page?” It’s true. Alice is a girl who cannot stop asking questions. She’s in a strange place but particularly her curiosity and curiosity as a central focal point of the books drew us in.

I was thinking maybe we can set this in a place that begs questions and has a lot of questions in the fabric of our beginning.  And at that exact moment, I came around the corner onto my street and there was a little children’s school desk sitting on the sidewalk. I told Landon, “I gotta go. I have an idea!” So, I picked up the desk, brought it home, and I sat with it, and thought we should set this in a classroom. So that’s what our story does. It’s a contemporary classroom. Alice and her classmates have been given a homework assignment that Alice is really struggling with and she, unlike her classmates, can’t help but ask questions about all the things around her. She’s banished to the corner of the classroom and she sees a rabbit out the window in the schoolyard, and the story unfolds.

Bad Hat Theatre group sitting in school desks on stage for their performance of their unique adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Each actor is a student, raising their hands from their desks.

VP

It’s an “all about you” assignment and one of the questions she’s asked is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Everyone in the class has their own answer but Alice says, “How can I possibly decide? There’s so many things that I could be.” So she’s scribbled 1000s of answers – fireman, dentist, doctor. She finds it a bit unfair. It’s a really amazing commentary on the school system. What business do we have asking a nine-year-old or a 12-year-old what they want to do for the rest of their life? And extrapolating that further, what business do we have asking high school students to make giant decisions about their future education? So that’s the struggle that she goes through, which leads her down the rabbit hole, literally and figuratively.

FB

That’s really interesting because Alice has been read by multiple generations and it’s captured a large part of our shared imaginative history. When there are creators like yourselves, who can plumb the zeitgeist of what’s going on and come up with a theme.

What were you hoping your show would add to the Alice cultural canon that you have pulled from to come up with this story? What would you want people to take away?

FS

I think with all art, one of the best, and maybe the only thing we can do is offer a piece of ourselves. In this, we all felt like we wanted to write something that was for everyone but also to heal something that felt like it was out of tune in ourselves. I think all of us who wrote the show wrote something we felt like we needed, which was a reminder that as we peek into adulthood, in our show Alice is peeking into adolescence. But for us, we felt like we were peeking out of that into a set of rules, responsibilities, and expectations that we’d heard about in our youth and now were ours to action as adults and leaders in an arts organization and just people trying to move through the world. We were at odds with some of those rules, and some of those responsibilities.

This idea that we can’t go and reinvent ourselves. I’m not just saying change your hair, but change what your values are, change your job, change your lifestyle. We felt a bit stuck, even though we’re in this bubbling, constantly changing arts sector. We still feel that and so we felt like we needed to give ourselves, as well as our audiences, a reminder that we are forever peeking into potential new versions of ourselves. It’s not that adolescence starts and you have to become this new, complete version of yourself, and then you’re 20 and this needs to happen now and then you’re 30 and you have to have answers to these questions. It’s good to have questions for the entirety of your life. You can continue to reinvent yourself as you grow.

And with all our shows that are for all audiences, we take the things we knew as kids and try to give them back to the elder generations that are in the audience. So kids feel seen when they come to our shows and the more adult audiences that bring the kids feel like, “Oh, I used to have that wisdom. Where did it go?” That’s a lot of what the purpose is.

FB

I was going to ask you, Landon, because, in the mission statement, you talk about getting back to that childhood curiosity, that childhood imagination, which is where so much great creativity comes from. How do you access that part of you to come up with either your performances or the music that you write?

LD

I think to be a successful artist, you always have to hold on to that part of yourself. There’s a reason children are so imaginative and children. I think it’s because we come into the world as creative and imaginative beings but pretty quickly, we’re told we have to start to become something and our options become increasingly limited the older we get in terms of who we can become or the way we’re seeing in the world. Just being an artist at all, you have to fight to keep that part of yourself alive. As Fiona said, when we were creating the show, in our version, Alice is peeking into adolescence, and we were peeking into adulthood. For example, when we were working on Peter Pan, we were all right out of school. We didn’t have careers yet, or reputations, we had everything to gain and nothing to lose. But after the success of Peter Pan, stepping into writing Alice, it was sort of our sequel and we were going, “Can we do this again? What happens if we fail?” Our version of Alice is reminding ourselves as creators to do what Alice does in the play, which is to keep asking questions, rather than just trying to answer all of them. Because questions are a place where creativity can flow and thrive and answers are a place of absolutes. It’s a definitive place when you have an answer to something. There’s less room to grow. There’s not really somewhere to go when you have the answer to something. But a question is such an open door.

The original is about a young girl who’s on her way to becoming a proper young British lady. So I don’t think we needed to retell that story, but you can translate that story to any young person having to become anything. Being able to step into a version of ourselves is such a wonderful opportunity we all have but it can also be really limiting. There’s something, specifically about music, a lot of musicians will know the four chords in any key and how many successful pop songs are built off of the four chords. Well, as a musician today, I won’t let myself write a four-chord song, because I know that’s basic or that’s amateur or that’s been done so often. But when I was younger, before I knew my music theory, I would play the four chords and feel like I had just come up with the greatest hook of all time, because I wasn’t aware I had been writing a four-chord song. I think there’s a reason a lot of the most famous pop songs in the world were written by teenagers and by young people because I think when you become an older musician, you judge that type of work, and you go, “It’s been done. I can do better than that. I can find something more interesting to listen to.” But sometimes the simplest is best and I think that’s why children and young people create some really amazing art. It comes from that place of discovering something new for the first time, and not knowing that there’s somewhere else to go yet.

Image of 3 actors from Bad Hats Theatre group, performing Alice in Wonderland. They are jumping on the stage with the White Rabbit leading two others in a song and dance number.

FB

After Peter Pan, which is a huge story that’s been around almost as long as Alice, how do you confront the anxiety of failure? It seems that what you are saying is you remind yourself about asking yourself questions, as a device to move the creative process forward. Is that true for all of you?

FS

I would say so. I think what resonated for me, and what Landon was just saying reminded me, was the naivete you have when you write a first draft of something is bliss. We often say “first thought, best thought.” Then we’ll go through drafts, drafts, and drafts and then someone will go, “What if it was this?” And we’ll be like, yes. And then we’ll go, “That was actually how it was when we began, which is interesting.” You write a first draft and you feel good about it. Then the hard part comes when you have to take it apart and make it better. It’s not impenetrable, but it feels good to have it feel good for the first time.

In terms of the anxiety, that’s a good question. You can only do the next right thing, right? If I zoom out and think “How will this feel on opening night a year from now and people are seeing it for the first time and those people saw us do X Y, Zed art before and have X Y, Zed expectation?” You could go down a rabbit hole very quickly. But you have to go back to focusing on the micro, “Do I like this line? Is this funny? Does the music want to come in here? Or here?”

You just have to put one foot in front of the other and the joy that we have is that we’re all really good friends, and we laugh a lot. We’re really lucky. I spend most of my days working with these goobers and we have a wildly fun time and we get to put a lot of ourselves in the piece. You keep going and hope for the best and I think we have to make room for artists also to fail. We have to be allowed to make bad work and I think that’s something that we’ve learned. Post Alice, not because Alice was bad, it was a huge success, but I think the pressure in a way only grows and we’ve only just now started talking about how it’s okay to fail forward. My dad used to say a B.B. King line, “You better not look down or you might not keep on flying,” which I think is a good one. If I look down at what’s possible in the darkness of what could go wrong, or the way I could fall, I will. But I think it’s also okay to go, “If I do fall, it’s okay. I’ve got all these people who will catch me and I’ll catch me and you need to learn.” There’s gonna have to be darkness and lightness in the process.

VP

There’s the adage, “You have your whole life to write your first novel, you have your whole life to write your first play.” Peter Pan, there was no expectation. No one knew who we were. Personally, there was a lot of fear of failure regarding the sophomore project. We do other things outside of these major productions, our mainstream flagships. We do a lot of other things. We have development programs, we do smaller plays, and we do workshops. But Peter Pan was a big thing and suddenly people go, “When’s the next one ready?”

We have the extreme privilege that our work has been programmed time and time again, which doesn’t happen very often. We managed to do several runs of Peter Pan from 2015 to 2019 and that afforded us visibility and presence in the landscape while being able to work on Alice, whichwe started working on in 2018 and premiered on stage in 2022. Now we’re doing little rewrites, and we’re coming back for a remount and we’ll do little rewrites before we do it again in 2024. We have two stops planned for 2024, so it’s nice that we have this time to make iterative art. But we weren’t rushed to do the thing. Honestly, the pandemic helped. We suddenly felt we had the time with it. We could actually put forward something worthwhile with a message.

LD

If I can add one more thing about the fear as an artist, there’s an element of mindfulness. You have to practice just not looking at it and giving it too much of your attention and energy. It’s the same thing as having the thought, “Am I going to make rent next month?” That’s only so useful to actually helping you make rent next month because sometimes the anxiety and the fear can just become debilitating. Sometimes the pressure can prompt you into creativity but sometimes it can actually inhibit creativity.

As Fiona said, about how much we make each other and ourselves laugh within a creative process, it’s important to lean on those moments. Because, when the pressure is out there and opening night is on its way, and you’re thinking about all the important people coming to your show, it can be a debilitating thing. It’s true and it’s the reality but I find it’s just often not that useful to give it too much attention. So, I really just try to practice not looking at it. The other thing is, when I was a younger artist, I didn’t think too much about what other people thought. I just knew I was making myself and my friends laugh and that was enough. Then in this process, at the beginning, you start thinking, “What are people going to think? Are they going to like it? Is it going to be as good as next time? Can we maintain this status we’ve risen to?” Again, I find that fear just gets in the way and the older I’ve gotten the more I’ve been able to go back to that youthful place of just trusting my taste and trusting the way I make my friends laugh in a room and I’ve just gotten better at trusting that if I like something chances are other people will probably like it, as well. I’m an audience member. I consume a lot of art. So, my taste must count for something.

Still image of actors on stage, performing Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland for the theater. This is Bad Hats Theatre, on stage with chess board lighting, with a red hue.

VP

This relates to something that you had mentioned, Frank, about Lewis Carroll’s, “Who am I?” thesis. Our director has been with the piece for a very long time since we started writing in 2018. Her name is Sue Miner. She was in the interview for the job and we said, “This will be the project, these are the requirements.” And she said, “This is all fine. As long as I can stay Sue, I can do anything.” That’s something that resonated with me a lot and I know it resonated with Fiona as well. It inspired a lot of that element of saying that it doesn’t matter who you want to be when you grow up, as long as you stay you, as long as we as artists stay ourselves in the creation of it, you can get through anything, and you can push through any barrier. The ultimate answer to who we want to be when we’re older should just be ourselves.

FB

Landon, you mentioned that Lewis Carroll wrote his piece as a reflection of Victorian England. This is a question for all three of you. Why do you think it is that Alice in Wonderland still resonates with audiences today? Why is it that you can take something that was written 150 years ago, and put a spin on it? What is it about that story, do you think?

LD

I do actually think there is something to be said for the ’60s and ’70s psychedelic drug experimentation era, the hippie movement, and the Beatles. I do think the Caterpillar sitting on the mushroom smoking a hookah and the Mad Hatter play into it. I don’t know if that is Lewis Carroll’s intention but it seems that the hippie and psychedelic culture has taken Alice on as an icon.

FB

That’s true. For the 60s, Alice is a reflection of the decade of the era. The music, in particular,  speaks to that.

The Matrix took Alice and made it about the internet and falling down that rabbit hole and tech. Each decade reimagines it, which is the great thing about some of these stories, they can be retold so they have meaning for a contemporary audience. As your play or your musical is doing with your theme that is personal to you. As you said earlier, it’s a reflection of who you are and that becomes part of the canon.

Fiona when you were writing, were there themes coming from the original that you said “These are universal themes of identity or logic.” For me, the world is so illogical and facts are no longer facts so Alice is the archetypal story of illogic and it seems relevant now.

FS

I think you hit the nail on the head that the universality exists in Alice receiving a world that is a mirror of the real world, and its illogical aspects. Why is time counted the way that it’s counted? Why does the sun come up over there and go down over there? What is gravity? Why do our door handles open this way? I think her changing sizes and all the things that happened physically to her when she’s in this world have so many nods to how a person moves through life. How do they move through the world? How do we fit into society? Your life can be one way and you get a phone call, you get information, and then you’re in a completely different universe.

I read somewhere that essentially, the Hero’s Journey is, the Hero sets out on his quest, completes the quest, comes home, and everything is changed. Whereas the Heroine’s journey is the Heroine sets out on the quest, comes home, and spends the entire journey trying to get back to how it was before to level the playing field. Alice, especially in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, comes out at the end and goes, “Oh, that was strange,” and then continues on her way. I rebelled against that a little bit. I felt like I needed to make a hero. The gendering of this is so silly and dated but in terms of those two structures, I wanted to have things changed for Alice when she got home. This is only to say that I think there’s a quest-like nature to it that has just as many heinously illogical things that everyday life has had in all the decades that this story has been popular. Life’s been nonsense since it was written so I think we keep going back to these things that make us feel a little bit seen and make us feel like our frustration with the structures of the world and the rules of the world are reflected to us.

Image of Alice, running across the stage. This photo is taken from Bad Hat Theatre's unique adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

FB

I agree with that. I also agree with the idea that her adventure is a quest. But she’s so passive in the original and asking questions helps give her some agency, but she doesn’t have the traditional or classic Hero’s Journey. That also bothered me, which was one of the reasons I wrote The Looking Glass Wars.

But let’s get into the music because Landon, you brought up the Beatles and “I Am the Walrus,” which is a classic song that was inspired by Alice. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is another one. There’s so much music in culture that is inspired by Alice. There’s something about the poetry of music that lets artists explore these themes and allows Alice to be a muse. What kind of musical influences have you had for your show?

LD

I heard some artists talk about influences and how early on in your career as a songwriter you’ll just hear the influences. So, when I was a younger songwriter, you’d hear a lot of the Beatles, a lot of traditional musical theater, a lot of pop punk, a lot of Green Day. You’d hear one of my songs and go, “That sounds like this Paul McCartney song or that sounds like this Green Day song.” Then the more influences you gather as an artist, the more you can’t actually hear those specific artists and those specific influences, and instead my artistry gets to be at the forefront, which is an amalgamation of all these different influences. But I do feel now like there’s a little bit of a Landon Doak style. Now I collaborated on the music with Victor, and Victor has a background in a lot of classical music, actually, and we have very different tastes. Although David Byrne is definitely a crossover, which is definitely a whimsical flavor.

The ’60s-70s psychedelic movement is a massive influence on the type of music I write. I’m definitely a Beatles fan but I’m a Paul McCartney fan, first and foremost. I think he’s one of the greatest songwriters of all time. So that’s definitely an influence on my writing. I also listened to a lot of musical theater and I listened to a lot of rap and R&B, as well. So this show, I guess, would span from pop to folk to a little bit of R&B. Then, Victor is a really accomplished pianist. Typically, as a songwriter, I sit down on the guitar, but there were times when Victor would play piano. He would start playing something and I would say, “That! Take that part and loop that over and over again,” and that would be the impetus for me to write a certain song in the show.

But you could write albums upon albums from this text. There’s so much poetry. Lewis Carroll touches every theme and idea under the sun. There are a lot of different styles of music in our show. My influences are the main influences you’ll hear so it’s some version of contemporary pop, folk, and musical theater. I find a lot of contemporary music these days is blending what we perceive as genres and so you’ll hear a lot of that in the show. Victor did a lot of the instrumentation. I typically write the chords, the melody, and the lyrics. But Victor was the one who really steered the ship about what instruments are going to be where and what instruments are going to make up which song. We use these instruments called melodica, which are little pianos that you blow into that’s got its own kind of whimsical sound.

VP

The reason that this instrumentation is so important is because these are actor-musician shows. Everything on stage is being played by the actors singing the song, so you might be noodling on the piano and you jump off, you play the dodo for a bit, and then you jump back on the piano, or you go over to the electric bass and whatever.

As Landon said, I’m a classical pianist. I also was a concert tuba player and brass player. So I played a lot of that in my previous life and then I decided to ditch music and become an actor, and then it all worked its way back. The reason I was laughing about David Byrne was just that I find his music so funny, profoundly so. I love the themes of home that he brings into everything he writes, but one of the reasons that we got drawn to David Byrne as an influence of the show is Landon and I were really interested in the idea of time in music when we started writing this. That was the first launch point, we were performing Peter Pan one day, and Landon and I were backstage and we just started jamming right before one of our entrances, talking about what we can do with time and music, how do we make that come across? A lot of those ideas were pushed to the side by the end of it because you need to make it palatable as well. You can’t have this disjointed strange, amelodic stuff happening on stage. But David Byrne is someone who I really admire for his ability to manipulate time without anybody realizing it.

The most “out there” one we went with was the Tea Party song, for which I wrote three songs in three time signatures and overlapped them over each other. Which was one of the most sadistic things I’ve ever done. The band is like, “I can’t believe you make us do this every night.” Everyone’s just sweating the whole time. But it is one of those pretty insane and counterintuitive songs, which we eventually wrote lyrics overtop of and remarkably it worked well.

But to go back to the instrumentation, I didn’t want anything that sounded too normal. I didn’t want it to be the classic pit band on the side. I wanted it to feel whimsical and we found these melodicas, which are functionally speaking the keyboard side of an accordion with a hose or just a little trumpet mouthpiece that you blow into, and it blows air through it in a similar way that the bellows of an accordion would work. It gives you this kind of “whah” sound as the reeds themselves are in dissonance. We liked these little instruments because they were portable and they were so squeaky, honky, and strange, while still producing enough sound to be able to actually orchestrate with. So we have piano, bass, and these three melodicas. For percussion, we have a cajon, which is a drum box on wheels that zips around the stage and then we have a clarinet and a trumpet, as well.

The great thing about it is Fiona is the queen of this cajon and it’s literally flying around as she’s ripping on the drums and then she passes it to someone else and someone else sits down and starts going. It’s a really fun and accessible way of presenting these kinds of musicals because families and adults and kids and whoever comes to see it, are watching us have an insane amount of fun.

Photo from Bad Hat Theatre's production of Alice in Wonderland, during a musical number. The White Rabbit is playing the melodica, while Alice is standing on her desk, presumably singing a song.

FB

That sounds genius. I think anybody listening after that description would want to run out and see this show.

Because you’ve talked about lyrics, are there some lyrics that you can share with us that capture the theme of your show?

FS

I love all of the lyrics of this show. The first lyrics of the show are always really important. What is the first thing we get to hear? The first thing we hear in our show is the clock ticking, giving the audience a sense that something’s gonna happen. But the first thing that Alice sings is “I can’t help but wonder why don’t others wonder too?” It’s this big ringing question in her of, “I can’t stop my brain from being curious about everything.” Why is it called noon and also called 12 o’clock? Why don’t the other times have names? And why don’t we say we tuck our pants into our shirts instead of our shirts into our pants? She sees things and she has these branches of questions that come off of it. Our proposal is that this is true for everyone. We’ve just trained ourselves not to ask them. We’ve gotten really practiced at it and we need to unpractice it.

FB

That’s terrific. It’s very expressive of what you’ve all been talking about. Is there a song that people have latched on to that they sing on the way out?

LD

There are a lot of styles in the show so depending on what you’re into, you might latch on to something different. The Queen song where we first meet the Red Queen, it’s the Red Queen in our version, and the song starts, “What’s it gonna be? What’s it gonna be Alice? Since you gotta be, what’s it gonna be Alice? You could be a queen, you could be a queen, Alice. You could be free, you could be a queen.” It’s this hip hoppy song that really gets stuck in people’s heads.

Two of my favorite numbers are the opening number, which we call “Curious,” and the closing number, which we call “Questions”. They book end the show really well and they’re two sides of the same coin. Alice starts in a place where she is curious, and you’d almost think the natural place to end a show would be “Answers”. But it’s not. It’s “Questions”. The show ends with this open-door question mark with Alice inviting her class and the audience to not actually answer those questions and to remain in that curious place. There’s a recurring line in the first song, “I’m not curious, I’m not interested/It doesn’t matter/It doesn’t even matter.” It’s Alice talking to herself to try and beat away that curiosity but by the end of the show, she’s embraced it. It’s actually after a run-in with the Caterpillar, who tells her that you don’t need those answers and you don’t need to figure out who you are until you aren’t who you were, then you are who you are and that changes you will learn,” is a lyric the Caterpillar sings and by the end of the show, that final song starts, “Do you have a question? Go ahead and ask it.” That’s the note we leave the audience on.

The White Rabbit and the Red Queen from Bad Hat Theatre's on-stage play production of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

FB

That’s very powerful. I really like that. You guys have worked on a lot of fantasy with Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland and I know you have a Chronicles of Narnia story coming up. Why do you think certain stories or music can stand the test of time? Especially these fantasy stories?

VP

These three stories 100% spoke to the times they were written in but they are universal in terms of the mirror they put up to society. It creates a beautiful canvas for a few reasons. The first is recognition. People know when they go into Alice in Wonderland, they’re going to experience the Mad Hatter, the Caterpillar, and the Queen of Hearts. So you can take that and subvert it. You can really ask the audience to see those characters and those moments in different lights and reflect on their own lives in that way.

I also think one of the reasons these fantasies especially endure way longer than contemporary stories is because technology is not as prominent a factor in those stories. Technology in the sense of swords and shields or in the sense of clocks, absolutely. But these aren’t people sitting on their cell phones or their laptops. There’s a universality to it because it is not rooted in time. Even though Narnia is set post-World War II, it’s also in a different world and in a different time. Even though Alice was written in the 1860s, you can translate it because Wonderland is out of time and place, similar to Neverland in Peter Pan, which was written in the early 1900s. With each story, you’re transported away from regular life.

LD

As Victor said, fantasy allows you to imagine a multitude of life experiences and a multitude of timelines in the same human experience. I love how Star Wars phrases it, they start everything with “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” To us, it looks like the future but Star Wars is technically set in the past, just in a different galaxy. Those types of worlds, they have no timeline and they exist in a different dimension.

Stories last because the human experience hasn’t changed that much. Since the beginning of time, we were all these little biological beings who have this innate sense of love and then we’re at war all the time. So being a human is this weird little equation of the amount of time I have and the love I need to feel or give, and what to do with that love in the amount of time I have. I think that’s been true of the human experience forever and that’s never going to change. Pop culture references, history, politics, and our values as people do change but when you set a story in a fantasy world, you take it outside of that stuff. You take it outside of time, but the fundamentals of being a human are going to be the same no matter what dimension or period you’re in.

FB

I agree. I think these universal truths and emotions bind humanity and the stories reflect that. It doesn’t matter when they were written because, at its essence, it’s about the human experience. Love and reinforcing certain values that we all aspire to is evoked over and over again in these stories and it doesn’t matter what era you’re in because you’re telling that same universal truth.

FS

When in your life you interact with a specific piece of art also matters as well. We may have seen Alice as a Disney film when we were young or we read the book. I read Peter Pan in grade 11 and I remember going, “Oh my god, this is the story for me right now in this moment of my life.” And then I read it again and again. I think of each person as a tuning fork and we each have a note. Then when you pick up a piece of art, whether you listen to a song, look at a painting, or read a book at a different age of your life, it goes in harmony with that tune, your pitch, in that moment of your life in a different way than it will when you’re in your 60s or when you were five years old. The spirit behind all our shows is inspired by the idea that we can present this piece of art and it’s going to be in harmony with people of different ages throughout the audience in different ways but everyone is going to blend and make a chord together.

FB

That’s the whole reason that when stories enter the public domain, folks like us take those and reimagine them to be relevant for a contemporary audience.

I find it interesting how many times we’ve used “down the rabbit hole” today or you said, “Oh, I’m gonna use that pond again.” I don’t know if people realize that Alice in Wonderland is literally the most quoted book in the world, except for the Bible. By far, “down the rabbit hole” is Lewis Carroll’s biggest contribution to the English language, and most of the time we use that metaphor to mean a time suck of some sort. But we also use it to mean a guilty pleasure. “I’m down the rabbit hole of whatever show you’re watching.” So, what rabbit holes of guilty pleasures do you enjoy separately from your work at Bad Hats?

LD

I’m in a nature rabbit hole. I’m very fortunate that my family has a little cottage out in the Kawartha Lakes and it feels like a rabbit hole. You’re right about this “down the rabbit hole” thing. It’s something we all say all the time, and it feels like you’re down a thought loop. You’re stuck in a hole that you need to somehow find a way out of. But it’s interesting that in all three stories we’re adapting, they all go through a magical portal at some point. This is common in a lot of stories but in Peter Pan, Peter takes the Darling children out the window and they end up in Neverland. In Alice, they obviously go down a rabbit hole and end up in Wonderland. In Chronicles of Narnia, they walk through a wardrobe and end up in Narnia. Anyway, my rabbit hole is the woods, escaping the city of Toronto and disappearing into this magical place I’m in.

FB

That’s great. Very true to the original.

VP

I was actually counting earlier and by the time you mentioned how many times we’d said down the rabbit hole, the count was six. I feel like you should have a counter on the podcast because I’m sure this happens every time you interview anyone. But I don’t know if I could pinpoint one exact thing. I’ve been going on this pretty fantastic journey through British panel shows. It’s comedians on really inane talk shows that are all just about playing stupid games together or who’s lying or doing trivia because they love pub quizzes and trivia. You wouldn’t think it’s that entertaining but it’s that British wry humor and there’s a sort of a circuit so you see them go from one show to another and you kind of follow your favorite ones. I’ve honestly found a guilty pleasure in watching all of these shows, Would I Lie to You?, QI, 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, and Taskmaster.

FB

That’s definitely a rabbit hole and you have a rabbit picture on your wall. So you’re really hitting the theme heavily.

FS

My answer is pretty boring. I’ve been knocked down a puzzle rabbit hole for the last year. I just can’t stop doing puzzles. It’s funny that you said things that aren’t Bad Hats and the sad truth is that most of my time is spent working at Bad Hats or for other companies I freelance for so one of the only things I can do to stop myself from working is to sit down and have to go, “Where does this line or match up with another line?” It’s just a busy thing for my fingers and my brain. Often another positive but unfortunate result of that is it allows enough space in my brain for new thoughts to come in and I get back up and get to my computer and I start writing other things. So, it’s a breeding ground for all kinds of stuff.

Two people holding umbrellas, and dancing upon a multi-colored circle. From the on-stage play: Alice in Wonderland by Bad Hat Theatre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

FB

I always ask this question and, as you guys are all performers who have done Alice, it’s probably going to be much easier for you. But, if you were a character from Alice in Wonderland, would you be, and what part of your personality is best reflected in that character?

FS

I relate pretty hard to the characters I play in the show. My primary character is Tweedle Dee, opposite Landon’s, Tweedle Dum. I relate in the sense that those two characters represent our relationship really well which is just playing off each other and constant tomfoolery. It feels like I get to run around in a playground that I built with my best friends. It feels very true to my specific relationship with Landon. If I was a character in Wonderland, it’s hard to say. On different days it’s different people. Sometimes I feel like I get a bit White Knight-ish. But I do really relate to the characters in the show, there’s a reason we kind of wrote them for ourselves.

LD

I think what makes these characters in the book, not just in our version, but in the book so relatable is that none of them feel like full people. They all feel like aspects of all of us. Like Fiona said, on different days, I probably relate more to different ones. We played Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, who, in our version, are constantly saying the phrase, “Let’s go!”. They’re these two characters who have a positive outlook on everything and are really jacked up on learning stuff. They’re the first people in our version who Alice stumbles upon who aren’t telling her what she should do and how she has to do something. They’re open to anything that can happen and they think, “Let’s go learn a thing, and let’s go on an adventure.” I think Fiona and I, as artists and as creators, on the days where we get a little too cerebral, and we’re looking for the answers, and we’re looking at the fear, you’ve got to adopt that Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum, attitude of, “I don’t know the answer, but let’s go look that place.” We also play the Mad Hatter and the March Hare opposite each other. There’s sort of this duo-ship that we get to play with.

I would say, I want to be the Caterpillar but I think I’m often Alice, living in this place of questions and dealing with the anxiety that that place can cause. But I would want to be the caterpillar who, like Alice, is living in a place of questions, but is so at peace with not having the answers.

VP

I think if you want to hit it on the head, White Knight was my first response. But it’s funny because there’s the original book and then there’s the adaptation we’ve done. Your listeners don’t necessarily know the adaptation we’ve done but Fiona has fused Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass in a lot of ways. So Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum are in our version of Alice, even though it’s not in the original adventures, we’ve combined them in that way as well. It’s almost hard for me to say because I feel now I’ve experienced this stage version more than I’ve experienced the book. So, my perception of reality is a bit skewed in that sense, but I do see parallels between myself and both the White Knight and the Dodo. I also relate to the Mad Hatter as portrayed in our show.  The concept behind it is Alice stumbles into a dinner party and it’s all adults talking. It’s the idea of what someone younger might feel like witnessing the most inane adult conversation.

“How are you? I’m busy. Oh, me too. So busy. So busy. Isn’t that hard? Oh, it’s so hard.” Just complete nonsense as she’s trying to chime in and they go, “Why don’t you sit here at the kids’ table and they continue with their inane banter. I’ve become that a little bit of my life. I send Fiona memes a lot of being like, “How are you?” “Busy, busy.” And she’s like, “This is just art imitating life imitating art imitating life. So those three are my go-to.

FB

Those were excellent answers and it’s been such a pleasure chatting with you. I’m going to say that my takeaway is the creative energy the three of you have. There’s a synergy to what you’re trying to accomplish that comes through. It’s a really beautiful thing to see and to witness and listen to. I think my audience is going to enjoy this episode immensely and I know that they’re all going to want to see your show whether it’s in person or if you put it on film one day, we all hope to see your Alice in Wonderland.

FS

Thanks so much for having us on. It’s such a delight to get to go back and think about the source material since we’ve lived with it as an adaptation for so long. It’s such a great universe to get to play in and we’re really lucky to have gotten to go there and that people liked what we did in the sandbox of Wonderland. I do hope your audiences can find their way to Toronto in the winter to see it at the Soulpepper Theatre in the Distillery District. If not, I have a hunch it will be around for years to come in different locations. So, look out for us.

LD

It is great to get back to the source material. I haven’t thought about this for a long time. I have a newfound appreciation for one of the babies I made. So, thanks for giving that to us, Frank. And thanks for having us.

FB Enjoy your rabbit holes and thanks again.

Photo of Bad Hats Theatre ensemble cast for their production of Alice in Wonderland. 9 cast members are standing on a stage, in costume, looking through window pane frames. 3 members of the cast are holding musical instruments, including a bass guitar, a melodica and a cajon.

For the latest updates & news about All Things Alice,  please read our blog and subscribe to our podcast!

All Things Alice: Interview with Curtis Clark (Part Two)

As an amateur scholar and die-hard enthusiast of everything to do with Alice in Wonderland, I have launched a Podcast that takes on Alice’s everlasting influence on the pop culture zeitgeist. As an author that draws on Lewis Carroll’s iconic masterpiece for my Looking Glass Wars universe, I’m well acquainted with the process of dipping into Wonderland for inspiration. The journey has brought me into contact with a fantastic community of artists and creators from all walks of life—and this podcast will be the platform where we come together to answer the fascinating question: “What is it about Alice?”

It is my great pleasure to have Curtis Clark join me as my guest! Read on to explore part two of our conversation and check out the whole series on your favorite podcasting platform to listen to the full interview.


FB

You’ve had to learn the art of pitching so instead of writing all these things on spec you can take that next idea now that you have some doors to knock on and some folks to talk to. 

CC

That’s what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years. When I first became a writer, I didn’t even think about pitching. I’m not a performer. Then I go to San Diego Comic-Con with you and I’m watching you drop into this well-polished pitch with strangers who are just walking up to your booth and in 15 seconds they know what the world is. I was like, “Well, shit, now I gotta learn how to do that.” 

I was pitching Amazon the day the strike happened. We were doing it over Zoom. I would prefer to go in a room and shoot the shit like you and I are now, find something to riff back and forth on, get excited, get the notes, get out, and go to town. That’s not the way it is anymore. Now it’s over Zoom, they’re on mute and they’re gonna sit there for 30 minutes, nod their head and you’re gonna hope they’re not reading their email. It sucks. But you have to do it.

FB

It’s a lot harder to connect personally, because of the lack of proximity to each other and feeling that transference of energy that goes back and forth in a pitch, especially when it starts going well, and you’re building that momentum. 

CC

My reps will send me the mandates the studios send out, “We’re looking for this, this, and that. By the time you get to them, they don’t want that shit anymore. Honestly, where I’m at now with the way that I do development, I don’t even think about the market. You can’t time the market. You’re not going to be there when the market wants what it wants right now anyway, and so you’re almost better off trying to develop what’s not in the marketplace or what the markets aren’t buying. By the time you’re ready to go out with a project, it literally could be a year or two from when you conceived of it. Who knows what they’re gonna want? Everyone wanted Ted Lasso last buying season. Guess what? A bazillion Ted Lasso’s hit the market. So, if you’re going with Ted Lasso next year, you’re dead. It’s not gonna happen. 

Image of the coaching staff from the Apple TV+ series: Ted Lasso. With characters left to right: Coach Beard, (Brendan Hunt), Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis) and Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein).

FB

But in five years, it might be perfect timing. Your script, Run, could fall right into place. It’s unknowable.

CC

I have a project right now that is a deep-cover espionage story set within the Alt-Right. It’s already a tough subject matter. It’s a limited series. The script is great. Probably the best writing I’ve ever done. It hasn’t left the shelf because the timing is not good. January 6 is still in everybody’s mind.

FB

It’s too close. 

CC

But by the time it got made it would be two or three years from now. So, who knows? It’s so tough that way. For me, the feeling of it being such a strong sample is that even if it doesn’t sell, it’s going to do good things for me. Well, I don’t want to hear that when we’re not able to send the script out. So, you’re telling me I have this possible golden ticket in this drawer, but “Hey, just keep it in your wallet for a little bit longer, pal.”

FB

Well, isn’t that why you’re writing a graphic novel? Tell me what your what you’re working on.

CC

There are two things I’m working on right now. One is this graphic novel called Ender’s that I co-created with this guy named Nathan Reed. It’s essentially about contract killers for the dead. It’s about this guy named Ender Endless and he’s given a second chance by Death, which is more of an entity and not a person. Death isn’t good or bad death, it’s a construct. So, they go around the world and they end Wayward Souls, people whose souls refuse to leave Earth because they were wronged or their lives were unjustly taken. The job of Ender is to either satisfy the Wayward Soul by being possessed by them and empowered, then go and take care of the guy who unjustly killed them. Or if that soul festers too long on Earth, they’ll manifest in flesh as monsters. They’re ticking time bombs and the whole point is they gotta keep Death’s books clean. Death doesn’t care if they go up or down river, just as long as there aren’t too many of these Wayward Souls on Earth because then a living death could happen where the dead rise. The story isn’t about a zombie apocalypse. That’s the White Walkers of the story. It follows Ender Endless and the discovery of who he was because he has no memories from his life.

I love the tone of comic books because you get action and you get quippiness, and you get funny stuff. But with the modern indie books and the movement that comics have been on in the last 30 years, the writing’s gotten so much better. It’s TV-quality writing. You get to do a lot of drama. We’re talking to an artist who was nominated for a Hugo and we like him because my biggest thing is how well the artist gets their characters to act. He has a traditional style, but his characters are very expressive. I love expression in comics because it’s fun. So hopefully we can get him. I’ve written the first two issues and I’m gonna write three more on the contract. Then, if it’s successful, I’ll probably write more of it.

FB

So, you’re doing individual issues, you’re going to release those first, in very traditional terms, 23-26 pages?

CC

We’re doing it the way Image does it because that’s the publisher we want to approach. You did the first Hatter comic through Image. It’s creator-owned so we’ll get to keep the immediate rights to it. The idea would be to single issue publish the first five issues and then Image would collect it as a trade paperback and sell it that way. That’s how they make their money. That’s the route we want to go. But we have to get an artist on board and we’ll do the first five pages with the couple of scripts, and then we’ll talk to publishers that way. We’re not going to spend all the money doing the art for all five books if we don’t have a publisher.

Part of the pivot is because I couldn’t sell that in Hollywood if there wasn’t a comic book first. The market is too risk-averse. If you have original ideas, you’ve gotta go to a different medium first. It’s the same reason I’m writing a novel now. If I were to write that as a spec script, there’s no way in hell it’d get made as a $100-120 million epic that’s not based on anything. So, I have to write it as a book.

FB

But at the same time, it’s deeply satisfying to write and create something and have it be a thing, whether it’s a book or a comic book. If it turns into a movie, that’s great. But, when I wrote The Looking Glass Wars, I was like, “Okay, if this could just be a book, and certainly the first comic, will people even look at this?” Once I got Ben Templesmith for the first comic, I thought, “Oh, people will see it and want to check it out because of Ben Templesmith.” It’s similar to Hollywood. But the thing I realized that was so satisfying is, no matter what happened, I haven’t made anything out of The Looking Glass Wars and it’s been 20 years, but I don’t care. I love the world and the sandbox I play in every day.

Book cover for Frank Beddor's "Hatter M: Far From Wonder, Volume One" with co-authors: Liz Cavalier, Ben Templesmith, and Sami Makkonen. The main character is standing in an archway, throwing his blade-rimmed hat into a brawl between police and workers.

CC

That’s the thing for me, especially for the first book, that it’s just gonna be me and the audience. I have to get a publisher in place. My reps and I are putting the submission together. I’ve written the first 20,000 words, the first five chapters, and there’s a prologue. I’ve had the prose evaluated – it walks and talks like a book and it’s done pretty well, in terms of the quality of the writing. But the thing I’m excited about is that it’s not going to take 150 people and $600 million. It’s not even going to require the input costs of a graphic novel.

FB

I just wrote a blog post today about the editor, Cally Poplak whom I met 20 years ago when Egmont in the UK published my book. I was really struck by her editorial letter, which was incredibly extensive. She said she had the pruning pencil, and she had something for all 358 pages of the book. It was completely daunting and whenever I go to schools, I show some of the pages. It’s the only time the English teachers get excited.

CC

For me, it goes back to that unicorn thing. When I first read Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” I assumed that the book went from his mouth to the page. You often don’t think about the role an editor has in getting the story to that place. So that gave me confidence, knowing that I don’t have to be perfect.

Book Cover for Frank Herbert's "Dune", featuring a cartoonish night sky, with 2 moons and multiple waves of sandy dunes in red, yellow and orange hues.

FB

But you mentioned Frank Herbert and basically, all people named Frank who write are pretty natural and don’t have to work that hard at it.

CC

And all people named Curtis are donkeys. But with editors, they’re not trying to do what writers do when they read, which is, “This is what I would have done.” They’re trying to make it work.

FB

My editor said, “This is your book, and if you don’t want to take this on, don’t take this on. These are really suggestions.” She was so smart in giving me ownership and having great editorial advice and ideas but never losing the thread that this was my book.

CC

It’s way different than Hollywood.

FB

That’s the whole point. It’s not just about writing a book so I can get a $150 million movie made. It’s writing a book because it’s an amazing experience and it’s mine. No matter what happens, it comes from my mind and my imagination. Then if what was in your head translates to the reader, and the reader tells you, that will blow your mind. Then they dressed up as characters and then they got tattoos and you’re like, “Okay, how did that happen?”

CC

I have one character in the book that if anybody gets a tattoo, I know exactly who it will be. But I can’t spoil that character because he’s fun. But I agree with everything you’re saying. It’s the most fun writing, in some ways, that I’ve ever had because I’m not thinking about anyone other than myself. Whereas when you’re writing a comic, you’re thinking of the artists. When you’re writing for television or film, you’re thinking about the executives and a million other things you don’t want to think about, but you have to.

I had this discussion with my friend Brian Hanson, who has an MFA and has directed movies. I was like, “I have an unpopular opinion, I actually think prose is easier than screenwriting.” He goes, “You’re out of your mind.” But I said, “No when you’re writing prose, you get to do all the jobs. You’re the sound designer, you’re the actor, you’re the director, you’re the writer. You get to write all the senses. The issue with screenwriting is people overwrite way too much because they’re not used to the economy of words. It puts you in a box. It was liberating to do prose. I’m not saying I’m great at it, but I had a great time doing it. Also, the way you can get yourself out of trouble and make a scene work is so much different because you have the character’s thoughts, whereas with a screenplay, absolutely not, unless you do a voiceover.

FB

As you said earlier, all three, prose, screenwriting, and comic books are very different. All three require a different skill set. I would imagine that when you finish this book and you’re on your fourth book, you’ll look back at that first book and go, “Wow, I could have done such a better job.” I certainly feel that way. But you’re in the moment and you have the skill set that you have and you have the imaginative power that you have. You create the thing, you put it out there, and you hope people receive it in the way that you intended.

CC

It’s called Paragons, but I don’t know when it’ll come out.

FB

And you’ve written 20,000 pages and tell us, is it Y.A., is it adult?

CC

It’s the older end of Y.A. Ages 14-17.

FB

How many pages? What are you thinking for word count?

CC

It’ll probably be close to 100,000 words. I know a lot of Y.A. is around 80,000 words but for a lot of Science Fiction Fantasy, you tack on some words because of the world-building. So, I’m shooting for somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 words.

FB

Yeah, I’d say 80,000 words is a very good mark.

CC

We had a conversation about this book and I still take some of the things you said to me and have built them into how I’m building the world in terms of the age of the protagonist and making sure that all of the “good stuff,” is in the first book, meaning you only have one chance to hook them. I’m trying to be as aware as I can be from a seasoned writer’s perspective and knowing what I know from being in Hollywood, but to your point, this is the first time I’ve written a novel.

FB

It really falls on the prose. With a screenplay, you can have somebody rewrite it. With comics, the art can be the thing that shines and people will buy it. But with prose, it’s absolutely the words on the page.

CC

I wrote a test chapter because I was worried about if I could even do it. I was having full-blown impostor syndrome because I’ve done screenwriting and that translates pretty easily to comic books, but prose is a different animal. So, I did the first chapter and the feedback was, “What’s gonna happen next?” I thought that was a sign I should write what happens next.

FB

That’s very funny because my editor said to me, “Frank, you’ve clearly done all of the research. You clearly have this whole world in your head. You clearly know what their backstory is. But the readers don’t really care. They only want to know about what happens next.” That one stung a little bit.

CC

It’s like the City of Gods pilot I wrote. There was so much, “Check out all this cool stuff in this world that I’m going to do.” Then the feedback was, “Hey, man, that’s exposition.”

FB

I thought that was a really cool world. You might want to revisit that.

CC

I’ve thought about it. But the thing I got was that Greek mythology is a little dusty. That’s the word they like to say. Then the next thing you know, Dan Harmon is doing a Greek gods adult comedy.

FB

It depends on who’s writing it. When Frank Scott did The Queen’s Gambit and started with the young girl version for the entire pilot and then cut ahead in the second episode, it was a revelation. “Oh, you can do that?! I’m gonna revisit The Looking Glass Wars.”

Book Cover for "Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins. Image features the title and author on a black background with a golden sparrow holding a shield and arrow in an attack formation.

CC

Meanwhile, Alyss starts when she’s a kid and then becomes a teenager. The one thing I’ll say about the transition from screenwriting to prose that I do think is somewhat beneficial is the knowledge of structure. You were the one who sent me The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins is a screenwriter and every single one of those chapters is – cliffhangers like hell. So, of course, the reader is compelled to read the next chapter. Next thing you know, you’ve read the book in three days. Anytime someone tells you, I read this book in three days, you think, “Oh, that’s good.” Hopefully, I’ll be successful in baking that into my style, where, because of my screenwriting background, it’s well-paced with good cliffhangers.

FB

I think people describe my book, the people that liked it anyway, as being very cinematic as well as a page-turner, which was really important. It’s something I focused on because, with middle-grade kids or young adults it’s so important to engage them and to continue that engagement.

CC

My biggest concern with what I’m doing with this book is that I may have aged up too much. I’ll be curious to see what happens when we go to publishers. If they say, “Hey, this is written a little too old.” It’s written at about a seventh-grade reading level, which is the target reading level for casual prose, but the worry is that it’s coming from the mind of an adult too much. I’m a little worried about that part of it.

FB

It depends on the vocabulary you’re choosing, but it’s not knowable until you put it out there. I didn’t know that there were children’s publishers, Y.A. publishers, and middle-grade publishers when I wrote The Looking Glass Wars, which is why if I had known that I wouldn’t have had a seven-year-old, 13-year-old, and 18-year-old in the same damn book. But that was the way I saw the story so I just wrote it and then I got passed on all over the place until Cally came along.

CC

But then it became a New York Times bestseller, so I guess it proves you correct.

FB

Thanks to my editor.

I want to talk about influences and imagination. In your bio, it says that you “spent your youth spun up in a tornado of comics, novels, films, television, and games.” In terms of your style of writing, and in terms of your choices of stories to tell, what were your top influences?

CC

I read tons of sci-fi and fantasy: Ray Bradbury, Dune, Neuromancer, Dungeons and Dragons novels, Magic the Gathering novels, Asimov, and Philip K. Dick. I really liked this series called Coldfire Trilogy by Celia Friedman. That was a different take on fantasy because it was human beings landed on another planet and our technology didn’t work, so we’re forced to go back to a feudal situation. I like that kind of setup. Those books really inspired me, but I read them when I was a teenager. I was doing this stuff when I was five.

I have older cousins named Travis and Rob and they took me on a Dungeons and Dragons campaign at our cottage in Fife on Lake Michigan when I was like eight years old, I begged them to do it. It was amazing. I couldn’t believe I got to make a character and they were in the story. My cousin was the one telling me the story. John August, the writer, does a podcast with Craig Mazin, and someone asked him, “My kid is interested in writing. What should I do? What’s the best thing I could do?” His answer was, “Have him play Dungeons of Dragons.” You’re in charge of the story and it’s also social so your kids aren’t alone all the time. They have an audience in front of them to interact with. So, I played Dungeon and Dragons, Vampire the Masquerade, Werewolf the Apocalypse, and Shadowrun, the second version, which is one of my personal favorites. I played other fantasy games like Harp and then Magic the Gathering, which is a little bit like The Looking Glass Wars because it also has fantasy elements, science fiction elements, steampunk elements, and cyberpunk elements blended together. It’s big, broad worlds that go between different planes of existence. Those were the big influences.

In terms of comics, I grew up reading my older brother Peter’s comics, and God, I got lucky. That was the Chris Claremont X-Men run, which is the Dark Phoenix Saga and The Morlocks. I got to read a bunch of that stuff, which really affected me. Zany books like Groo the Wanderer and the Marvel What the–?! books. I read a bunch of really bad comics in the 90s. It wasn’t a great time for comics, to a degree. But that’s where it all came from.

Marvel Comics "X Men" by Stan Lee. This is the 30th anniversary of the Fantastic Four cover, featuring virtually every X-Men Character that existed at the time.

FB

So, a serious nerd-dom coming out of farm life in Michigan where you got inspired because you’re reading Magic the Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons novels alongside some of the great sci-fi writers in history.

CC

I’m not equating them as being as good.

FB

But you can go back and forth. That’s a love of it. That’s a love of the world creation aspect of it.

CC

There are some great stories out there. Final Fantasy VII has a storyline that follows a character named Cloud Strife and the bad guy’s name is Sephiroth. It’s this really crazy epic about cloning but when I was playing that game, when I was 10-11 years old, I’d never seen this type of story before. Even though maybe there was a better version of that story somewhere else, it got to me through games. You look at all the stuff that’s being made in television now and you can see all of these people were influenced by their childhoods in the 80s and 90s. Some of that is through gaming. Look at how successful gaming movies have become.

Video Game Cover Art for Final Fantasy VII. Originally released on Playstation 2. White background of a guy holding a large sword, looking towards a castle in the far distance.

FB

Finally, there are writers who understand how gamers see the worlds they interact with.

CC

It took a while for the industry to take those stories seriously but, moving forward, that’s going to be a huge part of movies because the gaming industry makes more money than movies do.

FB

Which is why I think Netflix is trying to get into the game business and probably Amazon as well, but it’s a different animal. I think they will have a hard time. Again, it comes down to creators who have unique visions. I gotta give it to Warner Brothers and Mattel for creating Barbie and letting Greta Gerwig run with that thing, make it her own, and transform the business. It’s pretty remarkable to have that movie alongside Oppenheimer.

CC

The thing about Oppenheimer is, you have to go see Christopher Nolan movies because he’s a writer/director and a lot of his films are original. I know, Oppenheimer is historical, but I’ll go see any Christopher Nolan movie because it’s creator-owned, based on his original idea. But with Barbie, what a bet. Now hopefully, they realize it’s not a bad way to do it. Look at Phil Lord and Chris Miller, though. They were probably the only ones who had that take on The Lego Movie, where at the end, you find out the kid was playing with the dad’s Legos. Holy shit, you’re telling me that’s what’s been going on the entire time!? That was all in a kid’s mind. I’ve watched my son, who’s five years old, do the same thing. He’s basically doing The Lego Movie. Lord and Miller had the smartest take you ever could have had on that movie.

Still image of hand-drawn characters from "Spiderman: Across the Spider-Verse" with Miles Morales as the main focal point of the image.

FB

That was genius. I love Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Those two movies, the way they were expanding the Spider-Verse was really inspiring. That’s something I wanted to just touch on a little bit because I’m looking to refresh and reset The Looking Glass Wars and we’ve had a lot of conversations about time travel and how time travel could play itself in this world. I had a template for the stories that I wanted to create first and then the last two were with you, Crossfire and Underfire. Now that there’s been a few years I’ve started thinking about time travel and multiple dimensions and the multiverse, and how I might be able to reintroduce Hatter through a portal that’s not just into the time in which he’s living but fractures off into different times and different storylines.

How do you see time travel in fiction, in graphic novels, or in movies? What is your take on the most effective way to use time travel in storytelling?

CC

The answer is very carefully because it’s an absolute can of worms. They can do something to the stakes, which you see in the Marvel movies, for example. Now, suddenly, “What really matters?” When you do time travel, you have to create a set of rules that don’t undermine your stakes, and you have to create a set of rules that, when you’re done with time travel, you’re done with time travel. Because if it’s always there, nothing matters. You have to create a moment in time in your world, it can be for 10-15 years, but you have to know before you start how you’re going to button it up correctly because nothing is worse than when time travel comes in and jumps the shark.

If done correctly, it’s great. My favorite time travel thing is in Looper when Bruce Willis says to Joseph Gordon Levitt “I don’t want to sit here and talk about fucking time travel! We’re gonna be here with abacuses and whiteboards.” That’s the whole point. The second you start to explain time travel, some nerd like me will go, “No, I don’t think so. This actually doesn’t work.” You need to use it in a fun way. Where it’s like, “Hey, we’re doing time travel. Okay? But we’re not doing this forever and the things that you’ve watched before still matter.”

Otherwise, it’s like the first season of Westworld in which they just kept killing these people and the people kept coming back. Why do we even care? It’s the same reason why they finally have stopped bringing Jean Grey back for a while in X-Men. She’s gonna die, but it doesn’t matter and she’s just gonna come back. It’s like a soap opera that way. You have to be really, really careful with the way you do it because your audience deserves that the things they read before still matter,

FB

That is why I like Quantum Leap, Doctor Who, or 12 Monkeys. All three of those did a really good job in terms of using the time travel device to keep the stakes fresh and allow an expansion of the story. Then it’s about how clever you are inside of the device of the time travel.

FB

You introduced all the Card Soldiers characters in Crossfire and Underfire, where did you get the inspiration for those? You have some really great characters in there.

CC

We talked a little bit about G.I. Joe, but honestly, I really viewed it like a game. So, to me, it’s a class system. In Dungeons and Dragons there’s knights, wizards and sorcerers, rogues, and that kind of thing. So, we have a pickpocket. We have an explosives expert. A lot of times, when you’re dealing with a Dirty Dozen-type scenario, these people are going to have, at least for the first story, a dominant personality tick, because you’re not going to get the underbelly of all of them. We don’t know why Gamble loves explosives. We don’t know why Engels was in jail. We didn’t why the character Rue, who didn’t make the team, was a pickpocket.

Character art by Curtis Clark, done for Frank Beddor's graphic novel and book series: "The Looking Glass Wars". This image features 7 of the characters, hand-drawn on white paper.

One of the things that we talked about before was my favorite character that I’ve made for your world, and Ovid is probably the one, but there’s this guy named Yonnish, who’s a linguistics expert in the House of Cards. I’m weirdly fascinated by that guy. No idea what he is. He’s just a throwaway gag in the book but I’m thinking, “What if that guy’s the hero of our story?” What if he goes to Morgavia and gets all the cultural norms and saves the day?

FB

That’s funny that you say that because there are two characters in The Looking Glass Wars, two Wonderlanders. They fall into the Pool of Tears, never to be heard from again. I was like, “Oh, I should write a story about those two.”

A lot of times I feel in the stories I’ve told there’s a big canvas and lots of rules and lots of logic that has to get dealt with to keep the story moving. I like those things, but those are there already, now I can drop into the personal, internal stakes and find ways to externalize those.

CC

Speaking of all these other characters, whatever happened with Hellia?

FB

That’s a very good question. It’s a book that was not released so I’m not opposed to talking about it. That has a big-time travel aspect of it, as well, because basically, it turns out that Redd had a child, Hellia, that she thought she had lost in childbirth. We meet Hellia at 18 and she does not know she’s the heir to Redd and that if Alyss had never come back, she would be ruling Wonderland. At the same time that’s happening, she’s starting to come into these powers. It’s her story of figuring out how she can send somebody back in time to kill or trap Hatter and Alyss in our world so the outcome of her life will be different.

CC

It’s The Terminator.

FB

It is. I finished the book and I’ve been trying to decide what to do with it. There’s a lot of rewriting that has to happen. But it’s a cool idea. You’re taking the antagonist and turning her into a protagonist by the end or at least you’re showing the evolution.

CC

It’s one of those great antagonistic motivations, where, in her mind, she believes she’s right.

FB

To a degree, she is right. Her mother was not a good person. But everybody is the hero of their own story, and she’s the hero of her own story. Curtis, thanks a lot for forcing me to divulge a storyline that I’ve been sitting on for a very long time.

Tell me what you hope to do next. I hear the CEOs are talking and Netflix is getting involved in trying to resolve this strike. So, fingers crossed that we’ll be out there pitching and complaining about executives but making stuff happen. In the meantime, I’m gonna be working on some graphic novels. I know you are. Are you writing any television specs or pilots to be ready for when the strike’s over?

CC

I’m focusing on the non-Hollywood stuff right now. I have four Hollywood projects that are all gonna go back live again after the strike. I have an adult animated comedy called “Down Here” that I have with this company called Mindshow. That was the one I was pitching to Amazon the day the strike happened. We’ll finish up all those pitches. I have the hour-long drama set within the Alt-Right. I have a Hallmark Christmas pitch, I never thought I’d say that, but it doesn’t have to be Hallmark. I won’t pitch it here but it’s a fun idea.

FB

But Hallmark is great because they produce a lot of movies. I have a lot of friends who go in for the quick paycheck. There’s a quick turnaround. They have a set template for what they want. They do a lot of holiday movies.

CC

Then I have the crime drama as well, which we were already talking to investors and distributors about, that we’re trying to shoot back in Michigan. So, I have all that stuff going on. But also, the industry is so upside down right now, that I don’t really want to invest my time on something like that until I know what I’m looking at. So, it’s Enders, it’s the graphic novel that hopefully we’ll have packaged up and ready to go to publishers with the artist in tow and I’ll finish the other three remaining scripts. That will be on the front burner and then also the novel Paragons as well. I also have a kids’ show because I have children. I think everybody tries their hand at a kid show once they have kids. But I want to try my hand at some of the non-Hollywood stuff just because Hollywood is frustrating.

FB

The stuff you can actually get produced and share is deeply satisfying.

I find it really interesting how you’ve turned your childhood and your experience in pop culture into a job. I think a lot of folks who are artistic, whether it’s drawing or writing, they’re like your dad, “You’ll be back in two weeks. How do I make a living?” There are so many ways, ultimately, to make a living and a lot of what this podcast has to say is about that.

When I say All Things, Alice, I think now it’s All Things Imagination, and Alice is a muse for all of us. Many of us, in some way or another, are all just following, running, hoping to, you know, create our own rabbit hole and our own Wonderland.

CC

The thing with Alice in Wonderland is Lewis Carroll kind of got there first. All the stuff that I was playing with and reading as a kid, it’s all influenced by Lewis Carroll. It’s all about the book from 1865. The entire fantasy genre and most of the children’s genre was changed forever by that book. I don’t know if he did it first, but he made it popular.

FB

Well, on that, thank you. And we’ll talk soon, my friend. Great chatting later.

CC

Sounds good. Thanks for having me, Frank.


Check out Part 1 of Frank’s interview with Curtis!

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All Things Alice: Interview with Curtis Clark

As an amateur scholar and die-hard enthusiast of everything to do with Alice in Wonderland, I have launched a podcast that takes on Alice’s everlasting influence on pop culture. As an author who draws on Lewis Carroll’s iconic masterpiece for my Looking Glass Wars universe, I’m well acquainted with the process of dipping into Wonderland for inspiration.

The journey has brought me into contact with a fantastic community of artists and creators from all walks of life—and this podcast will be the platform where we come together to answer the fascinating question: “What is it about Alice?”

It is my great pleasure to have Curtis Clark join me as my guest! Read on to explore our conversation and check out the whole series on your favorite podcasting platform to listen to the full interview.


Frank Beddor

Curtis Clark. Welcome to the show. It’s always a pleasure to chat with you, especially about story and creativity.

I am very interested in how a man who is as creative as you are – writing television shows, comic books, movies, games – made his way from a farm in the Midwest to Hollywood. Were you always a very creative kid? You knew you didn’t want to be on the farm?

Curtis Clark

You hit the nail on the head there. I have two older brothers, six and four years older, and because of that I was constantly being introduced to films that were probably not appropriate for me at that age. I was watching Terminator when I was six. I watched a movie called Black Rain, which had a decapitation scene in it, when I was not old enough to be doing that.

At the same time, my brothers were working on the farm and I just couldn’t keep up with them. I think you go one of two ways in those situations. You either get really good at that thing because you have older role models, or you get so frustrated because you can’t keep up that you do the exact opposite. I just didn’t have the same level of interest because everybody in my family was doing it and they were better at it than I was. Also, I’m the third son, so I think for my father, there was less pressure to make sure that I was also going to be a farmer. So eventually I went the opposite way. As much as I love and respect the farm, I knew it was not going to be my future.

Image of Curtis Clark, standing in a film studio behind a stand with 2 rolls of duct tape hanging from it.

FB

Set the scene for me in terms of a dinner conversation with your parents and your brothers when you have the life on a farm. Then, this creativity, is it coming from mom or dad, both of them? Who nurtured it?

CC

Probably my older brother Peter the most, but I’ve also had the same best friends since childhood, Mark, Bryan, and Jake. They were also very nerdy like me so we were constantly bringing new things into each other’s lives. I’d be at the dinner table with my parents and brothers, and they’d be talking about the farm or whatever and I was 10,000 miles away thinking about playing Dungeons and Dragons with my friends or playing Final Fantasy, or Magic the Gathering or a comic book I was in the middle of reading.

We lived a very classic 80s-90s lifestyle. It was very standard. But then, my parents got divorced when I was 11 and everything changed. Suddenly, I was bouncing between households and all of that. I brought up my childhood friends because they were constant through all of that. They’re the thing that never changed.

FB

Did you find yourself taking solace in these games? Because you’ve mentioned games and books but with games, you’re able to really play with your friends, and talk about the game mechanics and how it works. Books are more solitary.

CC

When I was a kid, you weren’t playing over the internet, so we were all getting together and playing a video game or Magic the Gathering or Dungeons and Dragons. My games went with me as I switched between my parents’ houses. I’d take my PlayStation and play Final Fantasy VII. I’d take my Super Nintendo so I could play Mario Kart. I’d bring whatever book I was ripping through or my binder with all my Magic cards.

FB

Your childhood sounds like Stranger Things. I immediately flashed on those kids downstairs playing Dungeons and Dragons. Is that what it was like?

Image of 3 characters from the Netflix series: Stranger Things, playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons. The Dungeon Master is dressed in a purple wizard outfit.

CC

100%. We had one window in our basement and we’d cover it up so it’d be pitch black and we’d play this game called the “Dark Game.” No joke, we would make it pitch black in our basement and just feel around the ground and when we found someone, we’d beat the crap out of them and run away. One time this kid named Vic Preston was in the basement and he turned all the furniture on its side. We got so weirded out because we didn’t know what we were touching and he was hanging off a bar stool and he’d dropped down on somebody and started punching them.

FB

Oh, that is the coolest story ever!

What I’m really curious to hear from you is how you took your passion for all these pop culture mediums and how that propelled you to want to have a career in the entertainment industry.

CC

I don’t know that I had a great plan. I was in college for public relations and I interned at a place called the Concept Farm in New York City. I was always interested in writing, but I thought writers were unicorns. They were these things that were born. I didn’t realize it was a tradecraft. I didn’t realize that it was just hard work. That was something that I had a great example of growing up, my brother Jake, my dad, and my mom, everybody worked hard.

So I go to Concept Farm and I’m on the top floor, and the floor below is where they did the creative production stuff. I’m down there one day and I’m talking to this guy and I find out he’s the guy who writes copy for the ESPN Spelling Bee commercials. And I was like, “You’ve got to be effing kidding me! This guy?!” There was nothing wrong with him but I couldn’t believe this guy was the unicorn. This doesn’t make any sense. That was the first time I realized that you just have to choose to do this thing. Writing’s always been a confluence of all of my interests. Whether it’s fantasy, science fiction, even sports, I started to realize that I’ve always gravitated to story and characters.

Playing with my cousins, John and Ben, we’d get all our G.I. Joes and do our little G.I. Joe missions. They’d have the good guys kill all the bad guys in five minutes. I’d be over on the other side, setting all these cars up in a line, like they’re moving like a Mad Max chase. The bad guys would have killed all but one of the good guys. The good guy would have captured the robot that the bad guys had and reprogrammed him and they would have fought back together. I had just seen Road Warrior so it was like 30-minute long Mad Max fan fiction.

Screenshot of a scene from Mad Max. Features a guy wearing a metal hockey mask, speaking into a loudspeaker, with an army of post-apocalyptic soldiers and their vehicles on the desert slope behind him.

So, I met this guy at the Concept Farm and was like, “Oh my God, that’s a writer. What the heck?” I graduated with my P.R. degree then turned around and got into film school at Grand Valley, which has got a decent film program. I met with this guidance counselor and he asked “Why do you want to go to film school? You already have a degree.” I said, “I want to be a writer.” He goes, “Look, you’re gonna go to school with a bunch of 18-year-olds, you’re gonna waste a bunch of money here. If you really want to try this, you should just move to Hollywood.” So, I come back out to the car and my girlfriend, now wife, asks how it went. I told her what the counselor said about Hollywood, which wasn’t even on the radar for me. We were gonna move to this town and live near my friend, Mark. It was gonna be a fun little thing. My wife asks, “Well, what are we gonna do?” I was like, “I don’t know. What should we do?” And she just goes, “Fuck it. Let’s move to Hollywood.”

FB

No wonder you married her. Not very many girlfriends would say, “Fuck it. Let’s move to Hollywood on the whim of a writing career.”

CC

By the way, at that point, I had written one screenplay and it was God awful. No one should ever see this thing. All your first work should be absolutely embarrassing to you once you get good enough at something. But we drove out here and got our first apartment, our monthly rent was larger than any bill we’d ever paid before, and I started out looking for PA work, background work. Eventually I got a job at a bar and settled into a routine where I’d write six to eight hours a day five days a week and work at the bar three or four days a week at night. My wife started going back to school and we built a life that way. I met you after maybe a year and somehow I got work. It was crazy. I fell on my face over and over again and got crushed by the boulder I was pushing up the hill like Sisyphus until I figured it out.

FB

I love doing this podcast because I know you, we’ve done some great scripts and projects together, but I didn’t know the story about what your wife said and the courage that you both showed to just hit the road, make the commitment, and see what happens.

CC

My dad thought I’d be back in two weeks. I got my first job through a Craigslist posting actually. I was a P.A. on this short film called Burying the Ex. It was my first time ever being on set, I worked 55 hours in three days for no money. I laid in an open grave, pressing up on a box like I was a person coming to life. I talked to a guy at the graveyard and distracted him so that we could do pickup shots in places we were not supposed to. The police almost put me in handcuffs because they didn’t understand why we’re outside this restaurant late at night. Then, at the end of it, they put me in the thing, because they wanted a guy in the scene who was as tall as the lead, who was John Francis Daley. Then they made me deliver a line. This all happened in the first weekend I was in L.A. All of these “only in Hollywood stories.”

Screenshot of a scene from Mad Max. Features a guy wearing a metal hockey mask, speaking into a loudspeaker, with an army of post-apocalyptic soldiers and their vehicles on the desert slope behind him.

FB

What was the first line?

CC

John Francis Daly’s character thinks that my girlfriend is this girl he’s supposed to be on a blind date with. He starts talking to her and I walk up like a jerk, which is hilarious, because I weighed like 135 pounds at the time. But I threaten him. I’m like, “Can I help you? No, no, no. Can I help you?”

FB

You never forget the first line.

You tell the story that you were upset with me because I didn’t get right back to you after we met. I was taking my kid to a bowling birthday party and you were working at the desk. How’d you get that job, by the way, working behind the desk at a bowling alley?

CC

I met a guy playing basketball at LA Fitness, which by the way, is a great place to meet people in Hollywood. So I met this guy and his friend worked at the bar in the bowling alley, so the friend got me a job at the front desk. I’d bring my laptop so I could write while I was behind the desk, so when you walked in you saw me editing a really horrible script and that’s how you and I connected.

FB

At that time, I was just getting in the mindset of, “I wonder if I can find some folks that might be interested in writing these comics that I had been considering.” I remember, almost hesitating, like, “Should I really ask him? I’m just gonna ask.” So, when I asked what you were working on, and you told me, there was just something authentic. Maybe it was the Midwest vibe that I picked up on. That started the conversation and, you tell the story much better than I do, because I didn’t know what was going on in your mind until you wrote that blog for me, which was very funny.

CC

I needed mentors. I needed access. I needed all sorts of things. I didn’t know my elbow from my ass. So, you came in and we talked back and forth and you gave me a business card. I was like, “Holy shit, a business card!”.

FB

That’s what’s so funny to me. Just your reaction now. I remember having business cards, but no one gives out business cards anymore. It made me chuckle that the business card was the thing that ended up, as you called it, leveling up.

CC

Business cards were my existence because there’s no ladder with this industry. Nothing makes sense. There’s no one way to do it. So when you get something tangible, when someone says, “Hey, man, call me, that is sometimes all you have to be like, “I’m not wasting my early 20s. I’m not moving away from my family who I love.”

There are tons of people who come out here to do a thing, say they’re gonna do it, and never do it. They’re here for like 10 years and they turn around and leave with nothing. It’s like the sirens in The Odyssey. It was a way for me to be like, “Hey, you’re you’re working. You’re trying.” I could talk to you know, people back home and say, “I just met so and so and I’m trying to do this thing.” The reason I was mad at you is because I dropped off a comic book I was working on at your office, which was at the Samsung building. First, the building looked like this giant castle. I’m thinking I’m going to climb the stairs to the castle because the wizard is up there. So I go up the castle stairs and I get to your office and I put my hand on the door handle, thinking “I’m gonna charm the shit out of this guy.” It’s locked. You weren’t even in the office that day. So, I had to slide the comic book underneath the door with a note like “Bowling alley guy says hi.”

Image of the old Samsung building in Los Angeles, California. Where Frank Beddor once had an office and Curtis Clark stopped by to drop off a comic book he had written.

FB

I remember that too. “Oh, fuck, the bowling alley guy actually followed up.”

CC

The worst part about that was I just slid it under your door and that was it. So the reason why I was getting frustrated is because early on, you’re clinging to these opportunities and I had run fast and hard in the wrong direction. Because when you’re starting out, especially, there’s so many bullshitters. This goes back to Eagle, Michigan. I grew up in a small town. My dad was a businessman, hired locals and worked with a bunch of landowners. Everything was a handshake. If you didn’t do what you said you were going to do, you were screwed because it would destroy your reputation. It could not be more different in Los Angeles. I didn’t understand that someone could lie to your face and not do what they said they were going to do.

FB

That was shocking to me as well, because my father was exactly the same way. It still startles me. I still underestimate the need for the deep set of paperwork.

CC

With you not getting back to me, it was probably the exact same time that a bunch of other things weren’t working out. To any young writers listening to this: That’s totally normal. Don’t be deterred. But what I did next is also totally normal. I kept following up. At one point, I told myself, no joke, that I’m not following up again. Because I think at that point, I just had other people not get back to me. But I followed up one more time and you emailed me back in like three minutes. It wasn’t like, “Hey, man, I got it. I’ll get back to you.” You said something like, “Come into my office, I might have a job for you.”

FB

I had read your comic book and really liked it. Then I thought, “I’m gonna hire this guy. This could really work out.” Then, you came into the office, and we started chatting. Did I ask you at the time if you were a fan of Alice in Wonderland or what your introduction to Alice was or if you had any interest?

CC

No matter what you would have asked me, I would have said yes. I don’t remember. But, at that point, I knew who you were and what you were about as best I could from the internet and from buying one of your books.

FB

Where does Alice in Wonderland fit, if at all, in the games and books you were reading growing up? It doesn’t sound like you’re kind of story based on the action and Dungeons and Dragons. But I could be wrong.

CC

I was aware of it. I saw the Disney cartoon. I knew the characters. I’d seen the Tom Petty music video. I was aware of its presence in pop culture but I wasn’t the type who was gonna get a Cheshire Cat tattoo.

FB

I think we did talk about it because I could have an answer for either way. If you loved Alice, I could say you’re gonna love my book. It takes a spin on it and it tries to honor the original but carve out its own space. If you didn’t like the original or you weren’t aware of it, my book is a whole new world with jumping off places from Alice in pop culture.

CC

Of course you have two takes, you’re a good pitch man.

FB

The deal with the comic was you can take as much time as you need, you can pick the story,  so it’s going to be your creativity. Here’s all I need. I need Hatter in the story. I need to feel like I’m into it. I had no idea that I was going to get a sports story. I certainly didn’t think I was going to get a baseball story. What piqued my interest was how you were going to introduce Hatter into a baseball story with any logic at all. But you did a very good job of him finding his way onto this team and him demanding to know where the lost princess was and the coach or one of his teammates says, “You’re gonna have plenty of time to talk to your female fans out there. Just get dressed.”

CC

Hatter’s mistaken for some schmuck who played on a team. He looked like the right fielder.

FB

The thing was you played into the fish out of water, but in a little bit of an awkward way for Hatter. He’s used to being this imposing figure and if anyone threatens him, he’s going to take you out. That’s the usual set up, we’re going to meet Hatter, somebody underestimates him and then he shows his skills. But in your case, you’re introducing the American pastime and he’s a fish out of water the entire time. He’s just trying to keep up. I absolutely loved it.

CC

It was my wife’s favorite thing that I had written up until that point. She liked the end of it, where he doesn’t find her but he sees how the crowd is so into baseball and thinks, “If this can exist on Earth, maybe she is safe.” It captivated the audience’s imaginations. So, I had a little button on it that was pretty cute.

FB

You seem to be pretty enamored with spies and heist movies because we did two heist movies together as well as the Crossfire graphic novel. I love that book so much. The cover, by Vincent Proce, is spectacular. Inside, Sami’s tone and color palette is really spectacular. You did a really great job on the paneling, and pulling out moments of action and suspense, which goes to this question that I’m asking you about heist movies and spy thrillers. Where did the inspiration come from?

CC

The thing about them is the genre. The wonderful thing about genre film is also the thing that some people hate about it, which is that it can be somewhat formulaic. But when you can get into the meta of it, then it becomes a lot of fun. The second of the two heist films we did is, I can’t give too much away as neither of us own it, but it’s telling the audience it’s one heist film, and using all of the structure to subvert the audience because it’s actually another film. That’s what I really like about genre. We didn’t get to do as much with that in these books, because we were introducing so much stuff, but we did enough of it. The thing I really liked about the films we did was it gives you a different set of tools, because the audience has such specific expectations. It’s the type of film where they want to out think you, they want to be ahead of it. But you can trick the audience and play their expectations off them and it’s a lot of fun.

Still image from Crossfire or Under Fire graphic novel. It serves as an extension of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland universe. Written by Frank Beddor, and Curtis Clark.

FB

What I liked about the second story we developed is the father-son aspect of it and grounding it in something very universal. It’s especially the tension between a son trying to live up to the expectation of a larger-than-life father figure who’s very good at his job.

You did a great job. You’re really good at genre. You’re also really good at world creation. Understanding your background and the games that you were inventing on your own, it’s self evident, having worked with you now, why you’re so good at that. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to work with you on Crossfire and Under Fire, there was a lot of story to get out and a lot of concepts that I wanted to set up. But the revelation of Crossfire was the character that you came up with, Ovid, who is a former milliner turned spy. We used to call him the James Bond of Wonderland.

CC

You had done such a great job with the books, but there were a lot of pieces of Alice in Wonderland, a lot of characters that you hadn’t placed in your world yet, such as the chessmen, the house of cards, the Griffin character.At the same time, you’re also expanding to the Borderlands and Morgavia and all of these places. So to me, that was fuel on the fire. But, with comic books, you have a limited amount of real estate, so it’s challenging that way. I think each one of those chapters could have been its own book, to be honest.

FB

I agree with you, but I also agree that it was challenging. I also agree that we probably put more in both of those books than we needed to but I found what you did successfully was dropping in on the page. With comic books, you might get the stamp of the location and then there’s the dialogue bubbles, and then you’re like, “Okay, where’s this going?” You really have to be mindful of the art and how the panels are helping communicate the story, and what’s between the panels so that it sparks the reader’s imagination and you did that really successfully.

CC

It’s a different muscle than screenwriting. Comics are not screenplays and screenplays are not novels. All of it has to do with pacing and they all have their own limitations so it can be challenging. In the case of Crossfire, the scope, especially in the last chapter, where the invasion is happening, there’s like 10 different fronts and you’re dealing with the pawns and there’s all these different places. With Alice, you’re gonna jump from scene to scene, whereas the chapter with Ovid, it’s basically P.O.V. from him. And also, for Sami, it’s not always the easiest thing in the world to have these big macro pullback shots when you’re trying to establish so much in one static image, whereas, in a movie, you’d be panning across, and you’d be punching in on all of these things. So it’s just a different story vehicle.

FB

What was great was, you set up the stakes. We got the stakes from Alice’s husband. We’re using Borderlands and we’re introducing the tribes, which we’re actually putting into action, which was awesome. Then we understand where Alice is at and then when you drop into Ovid, the reason that chapter is so effective is because it’s smaller, it’s character driven. It’s his relationship with somebody in our world. So you still get the balance of being in Wonderland and going back to our world. It mirrors what I did in Looking Glass Wars. Then at the end, you still pull off this epic battle that plays into when you were a kid, doing the Mad Max stuff. I’m seeing all these muscles working in this book. In Under Fire, we had a lot less real estate and, again, you did a really good job of focusing on the House of Cards, and giving us the Dirty Dozen team of card soldiers and giving them all particular specialties.

CC

That was one of my favorite things. I thought of the House of Cards as a fantasy version of G.I. Joe. It’s not just a direct translation of G.I. Joe but the idea of them each having their own rank, number, and symbol, they clearly could be specialists. So it developed from there, the idea that you deal yourself the hand you need to win the game. That’s what the House of Cards is. The customization of that is like a good video game selection screen. That’s where it comes from. From my childhood, there was an actual G.I. Joe video game side scroller where you had five different Joe’s, and it was like, “Okay, I’m gonna use this Joe on this level and use that Joe on that level.” It just made too much sense to me that that’s what the House of Cards would be. Then when you said you wanted to do The Dirty Dozen, it was like, “Oh, yeah, let’s slap a bunch of misfits into this whole thing and go from there.”

Hand-drawn colored pencil and pen character designs for Crossfire, a sci-fi fantasy action graphic novel, comic, TV series, video game, or movie. All are holding weapons of some sort and dressed in tactical gear.

FB

Then we started to think about all the stories that we could build out from there and it became endless, like G.I, Joe, or Magic the Gathering. The graphic novel definitely has that game mechanic too.

CC

100%. I don’t know where the level of success with it in terms of comics would have to be, but it’s already a game in my head. It’s Magic the Gathering meets G.I. Joe. You have this paramilitary element and then you have the customization of building a deck like Magic the Gathering. That should show through with the work I did on the graphic novel. I would play that game.

FB

The thing about working with you on this, and even in this conversation, is I get really excited. Let’s keep building this thing out. There’s such a strong story engine, and the characters, and the world creation aspects that you brought to The Looking Glass Wars really expanded the possibilities. Not just in Crossfire and Under Fire, but you also assisted me with Hatter Madigan: Ghost in the Hatbox. I was starting to think about what four year school life at the millenary would be like you just put your hand up, “I’ll run with that. I have a few ideas.”

CC

I wrote a 30 page curriculum, freshman to senior year with two undergraduate years. The thing that’s cool about that is I did all that work, but maybe only 15-20% of it made it into the book, and a lot has changed. But that’s how it works. That’s why you do the development work. It starts to take on a life of its own.

FB

You wrote a script called Run, which you’ve written a lot of scripts, and we’ve all written a lot that’s still in a drawer somewhere, thank God. But Run was a really great calling card for you. Why don’t you tell the listeners about that script and why it was a door opener.

CC

When I was younger, I was looking for someone to give me some guideposts when it came to writing. Starting out, I had written some stuff that wasn’t great. I had written some stuff that was okay. I had gotten some jobs and I just worked my butt off, but I didn’t have that great sample. I was getting by on work ethic and passion but then just failing. I needed something that was professional. I needed a business card. Something that ticked all of the boxes. So I read as many science fiction features as I could find and I said, “This is going to look exactly like those.” That’s what I did on the page. That was Run. And sure enough, that ended up being the script that got me my rep. That is the script that got me working with some larger people out here.

The funny thing about it is, it’s never gone to buyers. I polished it not that long ago and cut 20 pages out, because I’m better technically now. But it was a very simple idea. It was about two androids on the run with their seven year old daughter who doesn’t know her parents aren’t human. That’s it. That’s the movie. It’s sci-fi, but it’s a family movie, a four quadrant film. It’s PG 13. It works internationally. I got close with it one time. A person who had a deal with Fox wanted Fox to buy for them but there was a competing project. It’s still a good sample, but I’ve moved beyond it in terms of being a writer.

Stay tuned Part 2 of my interview with Curtis in which we talk more Looking Glass Wars, his passion for sci-fi, and the new graphic novel he’s working on now.


For the latest updates & news about All Things Alice,  please read our blog and subscribe to our podcast!

All Things Alice: Interview with Ricky Romero

As an amateur scholar and die-hard enthusiast of everything to do with Alice in Wonderland, I have launched a podcast that takes on Alice’s everlasting influence on pop culture. As an author who draws on Lewis Carroll’s iconic masterpiece for my Looking Glass Wars universe, I’m well acquainted with the process of dipping into Wonderland for inspiration.

The journey has brought me into contact with a fantastic community of artists and creators from all walks of life—and this podcast will be the platform where we come together to answer the fascinating question: “What is it about Alice?”

It is my great pleasure to have Ricky Romero join me as my guest! Read on to explore our conversation and check out the whole series on your favorite podcasting platform to listen to the full interview.

Title card for All Things Alice Podcast, with Frank Beddor and guest: Ricky Romero. Ricky is shown standing in front of some art he has made featuring Alice in Wonderland and The Looking Glass Wars characters: Alice, Queen Redd and The Mad Hatter.

Amazing Art Discount!

Don’t miss out on snagging a piece of Ricky’s amazing art for yourself! Use promo code “JAMYESTERDAY” on HIS WEBSITE for $25 off your purchase!


FB

I’m excited to have you on the show and to meet somebody that I’ve never worked with. I have had a lot of guests that I’ve worked with before and now I’m starting to branch out. I love the tone of your art. I referenced it and you thanked me and here we are.

RR

That was an honor, man, seeing you drop that post. I saw your name and it sort of rang a bell. I was like, wait, I know this name. Oh my God. Yes! The Looking Glass Wars. How can I forget? So, I’m honored to be on.

FB

Thank you very much. When did you pick up the books?

RR

Probably around 2008. I read all three of them. I read the third one, ArchEnemy, right after it came out. After I’d read the first one, I was like, “I got to see what happens.” Then I sped through the rest of them.

FB

Thank you. It’s such a nice compliment. It’s been a while since I wrote a prose book so to get a little feedback at any time, especially this long after the publication is very satisfying.

RR

They’re a lot of fun and just really engaging. The queen that I draw a lot is, without a doubt, influenced by Queen Redd from your books.

A cartoon art print by artist, Ricky Romero. This is a colored pencil drawing of the white rabbit in a forest. Inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland book and body of literature he inspired. 
Artist rendering of a playing card suit holding a spear. Made by artist, Ricky Romero. This is the 8 of hearts and is one of Queen Redd's army from The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor.

FB

I’m really interested in talking to you about all of that. What’s nice about your Alice work is it’s right on brand for this podcast. But you don’t do just Alice stuff, you like taking on all things in pop culture, and twist and turn and reinvent them. What are you doing, attacking all these brands? The Little Mermaid and Alice in Wonderland, these iconic properties. Do you have beef with those properties?

RR

I don’t think it’s so much as having a beef with them so much as it is the creative world that we live in now because of them. As an artist, you feel pigeon-holed into doing certain types of art, such as Marvel, Star Wars, etc. I follow so many artists who are just incredible but they don’t get the recognition they deserve because they don’t want to do superheroes. It’s kind of sad because when I started drawing, I had a lot of original ideas but everybody just wanted me to draw what they wanted to see from popular franchises and so I think my style was a response to that. If I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it in a bit of a punk rock, sassy kind of way. There’s no real hate. Everything I draw on is something I grew up with so I have a lot of respect for those subjects. But it just feels like, “Man, can we get some new ideas here?”

FB

What I love about the tone of your work is, you’re taking something that’s recognizable and bringing a fresh voice and look and feel to it. I’ve a big fan of American McGee and he started with that whole dark Alice aspect. But when I look at yours, it’s framed in horror a bit but it’s so whimsical and optimistic and stylized. The Mad Hatter is just beautiful. The horror side of it comes through and a lot of people see Alice in Wonderland as a whimsical story but there are others that see it as more of a horror story with some insanity. So, there are lots of perspectives on what Alice means and how it’s represented in culture and I would say that more people are gravitating to “the darker Alice.” I can see why somebody might say that about your work but at the core of it, I see a love for the characters and a love for the world and a unique voice, which is why I wanted to reach out to you.

I would like to go through some of your artwork. Let’s start with the Mad Hatter because he’s so iconic. What were the influences for the piece and how would you describe it for the listeners? What’s the elevator pitch?

RR

Alice in Wonderland is whimsical, but I view it more as a happy dream that slowly morphs into a nightmare. I like to draw between the lines, so everything that I draw regarding Alice isn’t specifically written in the book but it’s not, not written in the original book. So, for the Mad Hatter, my most recent picture, I drew him with a bunch of tea-themed and Wonderland-themed tattoos. It works for me as I’m drawing it because, there’s never a passage in the book that says he doesn’t have tattoos and within the confines of history, plenty of sailors were running around with tattoos. That’s the creative process for me. In terms of making them scary, I try to merge a little bit of the creepy with a character that you actually might like to meet, but probably not stay around too long, which is how I feel about most of the characters in Wonderland.

A cartoon of the Mad Hatter and the Hare, who are sitting at a table having a tea party, from the tea party scene in Alice in Wonderland. Illustration by artist Ricky Romero. A beautifully detailed pencil drawing of the mad hatter by visual artist, Ricky Romero.

FB

Right. These are people with the inability to communicate at times or have reason and there’s rampant uncontrollable moments for lots of them. So, you never know what you might get.

RR

The fun of the story for me is putting my own little spin on it, but I like to make sure that if you’re pairing the images that I’m doing with the story, you won’t look at the image and say, “That doesn’t happen in the book or that can’t happen in the book.” Obviously, incredible stories can be made from getting outside the story but I like to stay within the confines of the original story.

FB

You don’t feel like you get swept up in other influences from pop culture when you’re sketching? Because when I look at his suit, with those really sharp lines and the way that his body is swayed slightly as if the wind is pushing him. That conjures lots of references to pop culture. It almost looks like he came out of a prison. That seems like a movie star from the 30s. So, you’re definitely still blending influences from pop culture that you’ve seen.

RR

A lot of the images and pop culture elements that I do pull are dated. I live on the TCM channel. That’s my jam. I just watch black and white movies nonstop.

FB

I also love the Alice image you did. She looks like a ballet dancer. She’s so elegant and there’s so much motion in the image. That’s what I saw at first but then when you look closely, you see that big knife. With American McGee’s art, you see the knife and the blood first but, in your Alice, I see the elegance, the ballerina, the beauty of color, and then you see this big knife. Tell me about tell me about the composition of that image and what that knife represents.

A drawing of Alice, from Wonderland with long, flowing hair and a skull. Playing cards are flying around her and a crescent moon is framing her head. By talented visual artist, Ricky Romero.

RR

I appreciate that so much. Thank you. That one is a piece that, in particular, just came about. I don’t even really know how it came together. The blade is the Vorpal sword blade and it is a nod to American McGee because her blade in the game was a knife.

I like the image of a knife as opposed to a sword, which brings a very medieval feel to it. The knife feels a little bit crazier. Like she just grabbed a kitchen knife and now she’s gonna go through Wonderland. As far as the composition, and everything with the cards, I wanted to draw an Alice that encompassed most of the ideas of Wonderland, the heart cards, and the little caterpillar she’s facing. It takes a bunch of elements from the story and mixes them all together into one piece. She’s really that much bigger than the caterpillar because in my mind, she had just eaten a piece of the mushroom. The cards are flying around as a sign of things to come. The blade was a nod to the American McGee video game, because there’s no real mention of the blade in the first book. In terms of style, it’s an older piece so I was more experimental than I am now, especially with the character elements such as the pointy feet and the very exaggerated features.

FB

I really love that. In looking at the Cheshire Cat hanging upside down holding a cup of tea the right way up and the scary card soldier, with that face which is all teeth. I think it’s a nod to full on horror. Talk about those two pieces because I definitely want to show these off. Describe the piece with the Cheshire Cat hanging upside down.

A detailed drawing of a the Cheshire Cat, from Alice in Wonderland, hanging upside down from a tree with no leaves, holding a red tea cup. By artist: Ricky Romero.

RR

The Cheshire Cat is one of my favorites in the original books. He was he so confusing, so nonsensical, he was always the one to put a smile on my face. He’s always depicted as sitting on the tree but I wanted to go a little crazier so I decided to turn him into a bit of a monkey. He’s hanging now by his tail, because why not? For the tea, I thought it would be funny for him to be holding a saucer of tea and drinking it. But he couldn’t be holding it upside down. So, I created an interesting mix and had him hold the tea the right side up. Not many people notice those types of details because, especially now, you’re really only seeing these pieces on the phone. But if you look closely, I always put hidden pictures in everything.

FB

Those easter eggs are fun. The more people that know there are easter eggs, the more people will go hunting for them. Is there a reason that you use blue or bluish gray for the Cheshire Cat? Was it an instinctual choice?

RR

I think I used the blue just because I didn’t have any other colors at the time and I was just trying to go for the brightest color I had. Yeah, at the time I was doing those, I was running low on a bunch of different colors so I was grabbing whatever I could find. I think some of those were even painted with food coloring.

FB

You said your Queen Redd character was influenced by my Queen Redd character in the books. Do you mean from the book itself or from the concept art that was on the cover?

RR

From the book. For Redd it was the overall personality, but the matted hair is one visual element that definitely stood out. Because, up until that point, I always envisioned her as similar to Charlize Theron from the Snow White and the Huntsman movies. But the matted hair and the blackened teeth are really the chef’s kiss of evil.

I remember thinking, “Okay, she’s not traditionally pretty, but she’s more likes this. I like this depiction. I like the way this is going.” Another thing is that when people think of the Queen of Hearts, they envision the Disney queen. The overweight, very boisterous, unattractive queen. So, whenever I see different versions of the Queen, I’m always intrigued by how whoever is interpreting them decides to execute the depiction. Your interpretation was so far outside of how I had typically seen her depicted. She’s either incredibly normal or incredibly unattractive and mean. Then your version came along, and I thought, “Wow, she’s actually freaking evil. She’s scary mean.”

A drawing of The Redd Queen, from Frank Beddor's The Looking Glass Wars. Her red hair flowing down her face and shoulders, that looks like blood. She is wearing a pointy crown and her teeth are also sharp and pointy.

FB

I can see that connection in your artwork. But I can also see why my concept art didn’t speak to that because there was that rub between the blackened teeth and that hair and how attractive or not attractive should she be in the concept art because I was thinking about it from a cinematic standpoint. Charlize Theron was a particular kind of model for the movie version. The concept artists I worked with for the cover art Seeing Redd did a number of iterations. There were darker ones that were rejected by my publisher and we ended up with the version that’s on the cover now. But I was always a little bit conflicted about the way I described her in the book with her teeth, versus showing that on the cover. I suppose I still haven’t sorted that out.

RR

I’ve got my own personal horror style, but I feel like it’s a truly evil queen. The feeling I get from a lot of different interpretations of the Queen is that she’s just angry.

In terms of Queen Redd’s look, outside of the sharpened teeth and the matted hair, how did you envision her while you were writing?

FB

I visualized the mane of red hair and then it was the dress. I had a little fantasy; I was driving in traffic and somebody cut me off. I was thinking, like, “Oh, I’d really like to do something to that person as they’re driving.” I thought, if I was a thorny rose bush, I would just reach over and entwine their whole car and find my way into the cracks of the window. So, when I went home, I started thinking that Redd should have a dress that comes to life. The dress could reach out and kill some servant or anyone she feels is not servicing her in the way she should be taken care of.

You said your first introduction to Alice was the original Lewis Carroll novel, but how old were you when you read it?

RR

My first introduction to it was the 1951 Disney Alice in Wonderland. But the first one that actually resonated with me and stuck in my memory was the 1985 TV movie. Yes, her and her sister. I couldn’t have been older than seven or eight at the time and I was visiting my cousin when we saw it, so my parents might have had it on tape. It was just so weird. The songs and the makeup were so out there but at the same time, it was totally compelling. I remember years later searching for it and it took forever to come out on DVD. I finally got a copy of it and I remember feeling the exact same way I did as a kid. This is really weird, but I like this a lot.

FB

Were there other things in pop culture that have weird, twisted takes on stories or preexisting ideas that you’ve been attracted to?

RR

A lot of them that I can recall off the top of my head are all Alice in Wonderland themed. Night of the Demons, the old 80s horror movie, is like, Alice in Wonderland goes to a haunted house. The most recent Japanese Netflix show, Alice in Borderland. I think it’s really interesting how many people decide to use Alice as their source of inspiration. That certainly resonates with me because I really don’t know what it is with Alice. But something about it is fun.

Two people hugging from the second season of the popular Netflix series: Alice in Borderland

FB

You and I have the same experience. I’m wondering if you’ve noticed when you’re working on something Alice-themed, suddenly, it seems to be everywhere. It’s everywhere every day. It’s like cars. You buy a Prius, and suddenly, everybody seems to have a Prius. It’s the same with Alice. This last political cycle, I heard “down the rabbit hole,” “we’re through the Looking Glass,” “we’re all mad here,” over and over. I was like, “Wow, was I not paying attention before?”

RR

I feel like that sometimes, too. The world is completely taken with it. We do Alice references everyday now for everything. Every time I’m on the internet, everybody’s “I just went down the rabbit hole.”

FB

That’s probably the most popular and often used phrase. Obviously, Lewis Carroll didn’t invent rabbit holes but as a term to refer to a portal to different place, he certainly did invent it in that respect. As you said, not only on the internet, but everywhere, people say it so casually. You wonder if they even know what the source material is.

FB

Do you have any favorite illustrated versions of Alice in Wonderland?

RR

When it comes to Alice illustrations, there’s a lot that misses the mark for me. A lot of them feel too fluffy, so happy. They’re great pieces of art, but it doesn’t resonate with me in terms of the Alice in Wonderland world that I feel. There are a lot of pieces that are completely inspired by one specific source, looking at you Disney. The ones that aren’t, I feel are definitely more interesting. Again, your books, American McGee, those types of things. I like those interesting takes on it, especially yours because you really went into the history and just tied it all together. It was a lot of fun to read. But in general, I feel like a lot of people concentrate on the happiest part of Alice or the dream part. Apparently, all dreams are good for them.

FB

Because to me, the Alice piece of art that you did is not dissimilar to Ralph Steadman in terms of the lines. There are common drawing techniques you both use. Steadman’s version is one of my favorite illustrated Alice books and it put him on the map. But when I look at your Alice, you have more of a horror bent but the whimsy that Steadman creates is not dissimilar to yours.

A drawing of Alice, from Wonderland with long, flowing hair and a skull. Playing cards are flying around her and a crescent moon is framing her head. By talented visual artist, Ricky Romero. 
A rabbit wearing a hat and a suit, holding a paper, standing on a soap box, presumably reading to a crowd that you cannot see. Inspired by the March Hare, from Lewis Carroll's book: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. By artist, Ralph Steadman.

RR

High praise indeed. I appreciate that. Thank you.

FB

Do you see why I made that connection?

RR

He’s an amazing artist. I can see the connection. A lot of my initial, I’m gonna say training but I’m really self-taught, was from a lot of Disney artists and books and Steadman absolutely featured in those.

A lot of the poses and everything else, that’s from studying a lot of old Disney Animation. That was really what I wanted to do. Growing up, I was like, “I’m gonna go to Disney and I’m gonna make animated movies.” Then, as I was hitting high school, they closed their animation studios and I just floundered. I was like, “I’m not going to Disney. Now what?” But all the training I did up until then definitely influenced my line work and how I draw. People see a lot of different styles in my art. It’s not really a conscious effort to make it look like any person so much as it’s just, I sat down and I drew it.

FB

It’s the amalgamation of all sorts of things that have come into your creative consciousness. I can see what you’re what you’re getting at with some of the animated characters, because you have slightly exaggerated proportions of the body, slightly exaggerated stances, which I really love. But it makes sense to me that some of these people were influences for you.

How does one become self-taught in drawing? Is it like writing? It’s the doing of it combined with trial and error?

RR

I think at the end of the day, it’s just picking up the pencil and doing it. Whatever your medium is, you just have to do it and not let the failure or whatever you can’t do in the moment hold you back from what you know you’re capable of doing.

FB

How do you view failure?

RR

I try not to think about it at all. But, in an artistic sense, failure is the idea of drawing something to a point where I know it’s good, but I’m just unhappy with it. I look at the picture, and I just say, “That’s a fail.” It’s depressing in a way.

FB

How does it inform the next piece or the piece after that? Or the reimagining of it? How does it affect your psyche going forward?

RR

I have this thing I do when I draw, something I learned from Roald Dahl. I saw a documentary about him and he would write and then at the very tip, the precipice of his creativity, he would just put the pen down and walk away. He said it allowed him to flesh it out in his mind because he was just so into it that he couldn’t wait to get back to it. But because he stopped at the height of his creativity, he’s really just pouring his mind into that while he’s away. Then he comes back, and boom, he writes the rest of his Roald Dahl book, or however much he’s doing.

For me, it’s a similar thing. When I have a scribble or a sketch of an idea, that I’m really enjoying, I won’t overwork it. I’ll just step away. If I don’t do that, it’ll haunt me until I can figure out the line work. I’ve had pictures where I will go over the line work a dozen times. I’ll delete, start again, reference, start again, reference and start again. Sometimes they never even make it out. I’ve got dozens of pictures I’m never gonna finish, just because it’s not a style I can capture in the moment when I sit down to work on it. But other ones, I come back a year later, and I’m like, “Oh, that’s what I was trying to do with that.” I’ll finish the piece in 30 minutes and I’m happy with it.

A cartoon of a person holding another smaller person in their hand. The larger person has ears that are bigger than the rest of his head. By artist, Roald Dahl.

FB

How satisfying is that? When you can actually feel happy about finishing it and then it comes really quickly? I do think that creating a little bit of space is helpful, which is why I often write out of order. I have an idea for a chapter halfway through a novel and I write that and then come back and slowly work my way through it.

The putting it down is really important. I’ve been looking at ways to adapt The Looking Glass Wars into a TV show, so I go back and revisit the story with logic that suits a different medium. I keep coming up with better ideas that would suit the TV show but also would be great in the book. I’m like, “What was I thinking back then? That this is so much better of a solution. It’s better backstory. It’s more dynamic.” It’s 10 years past its prime, but I can’t do anything about it.

RR

I was gonna ask you about how that feels, having something that you wrote that was so great and iconic. At this point, you must look back on that and feel, obviously you’re proud of it, but you must have feelings like, “Oh, man, I wish I would’ve changed that one little sentence or what if I changed that tiny bit of a plot?” Do you feel that often?

FB

Oh, yeah. I’m constantly reexamining and reinventing. For example, there’s a logic problem for me, and anybody that knows the book will know. Hatter Madigan goes on a 13-year search to find Alice and the moment he finds her, he goes into Buckingham Palace, fights a guard, and leaves. He goes back to Wonderland to tell everybody that she’s alive, she’s in this world, and they go need to go rescue her. At the time, I thought if I had Hatter meet Alice, he’s going to automatically bring her back no matter what she wants. So, I can’t have him confront her because his duty will overwhelm whatever her views on the situation.

Then, when I was developing the TV show it, I decided that the moment of conflict between them is so important, so how could I resolve that moment of conflict differently? I wrote a scene where Hatter gets into her study while Alice is there and she’s confronted by this person that looks like the Mad Hatter from the books, which she has pushed out of her mind. She thinks it’s one of those crazy obsessive fans, “How did you get in here? I’m going to call the guard. You have to get out.” And there’s this really intense conversation because he’s saying, “No, I’m here to save you. Don’t you remember? Your people need you. You have to come back.” And she finally uses her own logic. She goes, “Wait, so I’m your Queen? I’m in charge. You have to do as I say, is that right? I command you to leave.”

RR

That works.

FB

Right. It’s much more dynamic. How tortured do you think I am that I don’t have that scene in the book? How great that dialogue scene is and how much fun that would be and how conflicted Hatter would be after 13 years of losing his charge. He’s gone through so much and in this moment, she doesn’t believe him, just as no one’s believed her for 13 years.

Do people look at a piece of your Alice art and say, “Hey, this kind of captures what I think of the book. It’s not a dream. For me, it’s more nightmarish.”? Do you have comments like that?

RR

I get a lot of positive feedback from Alice fans. I think a lot of that has to do with how awesome the Alice community is in general. Alice fans are going to be Alice fans for everything it seems, which is cool.

FB

Alice fans love all things Alice. They keep reinvesting because artists keep reinvesting in Alice, so the Alice fans wouldn’t be investing if you and I weren’t investing in it and if it wasn’t always in pop culture. But it’s so iconic, Wonderland represents a magical place and “down the rabbit hole” represents an adventure. Alice’s character is something we’re all trying to discover. Who are we and who do we want to be? Where are we at? There are these universal themes that keep popping up and the community seems to embrace that.

I’ll tell you a story. One of the publishers that turned me down said I was gonna piss off all the Alice fans. Then somebody said I would only have the Alice fans. I said, “Only the Alice fans? Only 150 million books sold? I’ll take that.” I didn’t agree that fans would be upset. A few fans would prefer the traditional story but that just meant they didn’t know anything about pop culture. They weren’t looking anywhere other than Harry Potter.

RR

With Alice, you approach it how you want and, chances are, you’re gonna find somebody who really appreciates the way you’ve approached it. With the newer franchises, people are so defensive about them. They don’t want them to be messed with in any sort of way, whereas, by contrast, Alice is more, “Oh, here’s a bunch of paints, use them the way you want. As opposed to, here’s your set color of paints, and you must use these pencils, and color within the lines.” I think that’s the bigger takeaway when it comes to lingering characters in pop culture.

A drawing of a personified caterpillar, sitting on a throne of mushrooms and smoking from a hookah. By artist, Ricky Romero and inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. 
A drawing of a cartoon caterpillar with mushrooms in the background. From the character: The Caterpillar, as seen in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Drawn by artist, Ricky Romero.

FB

The other difference is when things are in the public domain you have license to do anything you want. Then, inside of a world, the Batman world, for example, if you give the reins over to a filmmaker, as they did with Joker, you’re going to get something that stands on its own, that’s original and quite different. But the more you try and adhere to the formula, the more the formula dissipates over time, and you burn out on it. Then you feel frustrated because the thing that you love so much starts to fade. With Game of Thrones, I’ve watched it multiple times but I always stop at season six because seasons seven and eight are so frustrating.

RR

I read the Game of Thrones books around the same time that I was going through, like I was telling you earlier, my last book-reading phase, and I enjoyed every single one of them. Then the show came on and I was just ecstatic about it. The first few seasons, I couldn’t tell enough people to watch it but then as the show was closing out, my Game of Thrones just went on mute.

FB

It completely cratered. But if you read the novels, you really understand why, because the novels are so precise and so set up for episodic for television.

RR

Yes, and they’re so expansive. I don’t even know how you can even fit all of that in a television season. You don’t get enough hours.

FB

But structurally, the books set up in much the same way as the television show so it was very noticeable when they didn’t have a book to finish out. At that point, it was guesswork and they didn’t have the roadmap. From that standpoint, what you’re talking about where there’s a burnout in franchise creation and exploitation of IPs, I agree. But, when somebody is a creator, and you can give them license, like Peaky Blinders and Steven Knight, that’s been going on for years and years. I believe he writes all the episodes and there’s a tone and a consistency. It’s stood the test of time, so far.

RR

I think if left in the hands of creators, we would probably get much more entertaining products. But the problem is that it’s not entirely in the hands of creators at this point. Even within the realm of Marvel, if they would just take the reins off and stop forcing everything to be a certain way, the results would be much more enjoyable. I would love to have more standalone comic book movies. This was a great comic book story; we’re going to make the standalone comic book movie. The next comic book movie, if it’s going to be the same character, it doesn’t even have to be associated with this one because that first standalone story was its own piece of greatness. But everything has to be tied in and it starts to wear on you. I loved comic books growing up but at this point, I fall asleep in comic book movies.

FB

I’m with you. I love the new Spider-Man, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, as well as the first one. But we have James Gunn running DC now, so we’ll see what happens. Fingers crossed.

RR

Fingers crossed. Indeed.

FB

Do you have kids?

RR

I do. I have twin 16-year-old daughters.

FB

Have you ever used them as inspiration?

RR

Oh, yeah, all the time. They are actually my models for my Alice character. I use their hairstyles. Anytime I need any sort of a reference pose featuring any sort of female characters – “Come over here.”

They’re good kids. I think every parent feels the strain of teenagers without a doubt, for sure. You just have to look outside of the family to see how good your own kids are. I look at what other teenagers are going through and how other parents are and it makes me feel like okay, I’m not doing so bad. This is great.

FB

Originally, you wanted to be an animator for Disney. There are a lot of other animated companies, did you pursue that? How did you land on this medium? Is this a career that’s sustainable or is it something you do with another job?

RR

In terms of the Disney thing, I started my family early.

FB

How old were you when you had the girls?

RR

I was 22 so, after they were born, I concentrated on the family. I always did want to try and do something else. After the whole animation thing I thought maybe I’d want to direct movies. But ultimately it was, “Do I really have time to spend away doing this sort of thing?” You can’t start a family and then just run out and attempt to achieve stuff.

FB

That’s a complicated time to be pursuing a career because basically, your entire 20s would be experimenting to figure out where you’re going to land so that you can do the thing you’ve explored in your 20s during your 30s, especially if it has to do with entertainment, because it’s so all consuming. For me, I was much older when I had kids. Then when I had kids, I realized I didn’t have nearly as much time to write, so I decided to write late at night, as opposed to all day. But at 22, you have to make some even more definitive choices. And having two beautiful girls, they’re telling you what choice you have every day.

RR

Exactly. I did the family man thing and I don’t regret it at all. But in the time that I was doing that I worked on my art on the side and it was floundering. That’s the best description for it. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do for a long time. I felt like I didn’t want to just draw because I didn’t want to be a starving artist. That’s not fun.

FB

How did you solve that?

RR

I became a starving artist. I just powered through and I got a little bit of a following. I’m still mystified as to how I ended up with as many people who enjoy my art as they do. I appreciate the hell out of it. It’s so cool, but I’m still dumbfounded as to how it happened.

FB

What are you working on now? What can we look forward to?

RR

I’m working on the Alice in Wonderland illustration. It’s gonna be a slow process because every single one of these Alice pictures that I’m doing is poster size. Literally 20 something by 20 something inches. They take up a good portion of the wall and drawing those digitally allows you to zoom in to millimeter sized areas, if I wanted to throw in that level detail, which I occasionally do. So that’s going to take me the better part of the year, to finally get those out. I estimate that for the first book, it would take me about 60 to 80 pictures to fully illustrate it to the point where I would be happy, and that’s including looking back at the earlier pictures and reworking them.

A group of playing cards spades, who are covered in blood and surrounded in a heart shape, by Queen Redd's soldiers. By artist, Ricky Romero.

FB

I want to know about the role that the power of imagination has in your work, because in my novels, imagination is a real power source. I often like to look at quotes from interesting creators or thinkers or philosophers about the idea of imagination. Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” which is so interesting because you need both, but you need that spark. When you think about imagination, what do you think about?

RR

Imagination for me is anything that is so outside of the normal that it seems crazy. I don’t really imagine day to day life. That’s not imagination to me. Imagination is when you’re sitting there and you’re like, “There’s a bird. But what if that bird suddenly transformed into something crazy, like a human with a bird head, and then it just started running?” That’s the type of imagination I enjoy. It’s a very surreal type of imagination. David Lynch is one of my favorite directors. He’s got that very weird, scene-to-scene, “What’s going on?” feeling and then he zooms in on an insect eating something.

It’s a very weird juxtaposition something really imaginative and something very real. Now they’re going to clash and I’m going to show them to you very vividly.

FB

It’s been great chatting with you and it’s been a pleasure getting to know you and learning about your process. Thanks for taking the time to be on the All Things Alice show. You’re the perfect guest with everything you’re doing and we’re gonna be rooting for you to get that illustrated book out. Where can people find you?

RR

Thank you. It’s @mrrevenge on Instagram and the website is mrrevenge.squarespace.com. We have a handful of limited Alice prints on the site and if you sign up for the newsletter, you’ll get more info and sketches and all sorts of other stuff.

FB

Awesome. Thanks for coming on the show!


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All Things Alice: Interview with Christopher Monfette

As an amateur scholar and die-hard enthusiast of everything to do with Alice in Wonderland, I have launched a podcast that takes on Alice’s everlasting influence on pop culture. As an author who draws on Lewis Carroll’s iconic masterpiece for my Looking Glass Wars universe, I’m well acquainted with the process of dipping into Wonderland for inspiration. The journey has brought me into contact with a fantastic community of artists and creators from all walks of life—and this podcast will be the platform where we come together to answer the fascinating question: “What is it about Alice?”

It is my great pleasure to have Christopher Monfette join me as my guest! Read on to explore our conversation, and check out the whole series on your favorite podcasting platform to listen to the full interview.


FB:

Chris Monfette, I’m happy to have you on the show. The title is All Things Alice, except it’s really turned into a podcast about pop culture and creativity.

You’re deep into Star Trek: Picard. I’m curious where you left off with the show, given the strike, and what your state of mind is. Are you on the picket lines?

CM:

We were lucky in terms of Picard because Patrick Stewart had only wanted to do three seasons. They knew going into it, because I didn’t come in until the second season, that it would be three and out. So there was a really unique structure to Picard where it was handed off from showrunner to showrunner for three seasons in a row. The novelist Michael Chabon had developed the first season with Akiva Goldsman and was the vision and the showrunner.

In Season 2, they had brought in Terry Matalas, who was my showrunner for 12 Monkeys, and Terry brought me. Because of the crazy pandemic pandemonium, rather than Terry taking the reins completely, season two was split between him and Akiva. Terry didn’t really get the keys to the car until season three, which is really the season that we feel we were allowed to do the kind of Star Trek we signed up to do, and really tell the story that we were longing to tell. And I think we did it really well. I’m very proud of what we did and what our team accomplished and I think folks have received it really well. It’s been really embraced critically; the fans seem to have loved it. I feel like we checked all the boxes and took the right path with that season.

What’s interesting is it started to air concurrently with all of the strike talk. It was very strange. In one half of your brain, you have all this anxiety about, “Oh my God, am I not going to work? How long is this going to go? How am I gonna pay my bills?” Then, the other half, it’s constant praise from the internet being like, “We love this. This is great week after week. This episode is better than the last episode!” There’s this weird feeling of getting all of these rewards that you hope for as a writer at the worst possible time. You can’t put them to use. There’s no show to springboard to right now. I can’t leverage this into selling my own thing or going to work for some show I dreamed of working for.

FB:

That’s very entrepreneurial of you to think, I need to leverage success. That’s a big thing in Hollywood, but at the same time, given there’s the WGA strike, there are a lot of folks that don’t have that reinforcement of their work every day. That must be a nice little buffer against the reality of a strike. Are people jonesing for a season four? Is that a possibility?

Featured image for the Star Trek streaming series: Picard. Thisi has a drawn or painted version of the main star, Patrick Stewart's Picard in front of a space background with the starship Enterprise and other outer space elements in a light blue and purple hue.

CM:

Just to be clear, it’s not so much leveraging, it’s wanting to continue doing the thing that we love doing, telling stories.

Coming off of season three, there’s been real fan fervor. Terry, in the press, pitched his vision of how Picard could go forward, sans Patrick Stewart, and move into a series that he called in his head, Star Trek: Legacy.

The fans picked up on it and really started demanding it. There’s a petition, a lot of online momentum, to make that show a reality. We’ve never been in a position where we’re more poised to springboard into something like that and to convince Paramount and CBS that it should be the next Star Trek adventure. Yet, we just can’t. All the writers are hungry to get back in the room and tell more stories in this universe with these characters. But everything’s on pause right now.

FB:

There’s all that uncertainty of when the strike is going to be resolved but then, it’s the worry of, have you lost that momentum from the fans to use their enthusiasm to hopefully convince Paramount to move forward. Fingers crossed it’ll work out.

CM:

I think we can get there. I’m hopeful. And if not, this will resolve itself. There will be other shows and entertainment is not going away. But, the strike is a fight worth fighting.

The strike is very interesting because there are several tiers of writers. Some writers are new to the industry and just got their WGA cards. Some writers are pre-WGA. Some writers have worked, for quite a while, but are not paying their bills off of WGA credits or are staffed on shows. Then you have the middle tier of writers who go from show to show and are also developing. They don’t have other jobs. I’m one of them. This is how we pay our bills. Then you have a whole upper tier of writers, the Ryan Murphy’s, the J.J. Abrams’, the super producers, and even just the very hyper-successful showrunners who have overall deals or have had incredibly successful shows. They can financially weather a six-month or eight-month strike in a way that other writers can’t. It’s rare when you can get all three of those tiers, who have varying degrees of urgency, to agree that this is a fight we have to win, and we have to stick it out no matter how much it pains us to do that. And I think we’re doing it.

Image of Chris Monfette, holding a picket sign as he is participating in the WGAW strike. The Writer's Actors Guild of America West strike in Hollywood. Which focuses on AI so he wrote Skynet in the Paramount logo for his sign.

FB:
It seems the middle is holding, which is going to be important. One of the issues is staffing and what the writers room looks like. From 12 Monkeys to 9-1-1 to Picard. How would you describe each one of those shows in terms of how many writers were on staff versus the arguments surrounding the strike about making sure that there are staff writers that are learning their craft and moving the show forward?

CM:

I’m of several minds about it. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on shows, whether it was 12 Monkeys, 9-1-1, or Picard where we had eight to 12 writers in the room at any given time. We were really blessed to have full rooms certain seasons, but we never had an empty room. All the shows that I’ve worked on really benefited from all of those voices creatively. I’ve always said this in interviews, Terry Matalas, especially in 12 Monkeys, and Picard really has a talent for conducting the orchestra. He knows how to staff a room of writers, each with unique strengths, and then knows how to get them to play off of each other so that there’ll be certain writers who are better at the comedy, there’ll be certain writers who are really good with the big sci-fi 35,000 foot ideas. Other writers are dialogue people, and we’ll all write and rewrite each other’s script and it’ll be better for everybody’s contributions. Whereas something like 9-1-1, for example, you’re assigned an episode, you write the episode, the showrunner polishes it, then production tells you what’s too expensive, and what’s not expensive. It’s less of a symphonic collaboration of voices because it’s a little bit more episodic with the case-of-the-week structure. So that was a really unique experience as well.

But in all of those experiences, you had the benefit of 8, 10,12 different minds sitting around a table pitching ideas that all complemented each other and ultimately made the work stronger or made the episodes more interesting.

Now, I do totally support the idea of individual auteur writers/directors who have a story to tell they feel can only be told in their unique voice. You look at Aaron Sorkin, you look at Noah Hawley, creators who have very unique and specific voices and visions. I feel there needs to be room in the conversation for singular auteur creators to be able to create, but I do think that to protect the vast majority of shows that really do benefit from the collaboration of voices, there should be a minimum room number so that ultimately the producers can’t reduce what we do to a UK model, where scripts are freelance and you can’t ultimately pay your bills.

If Taylor Sheridan has to put up with a room of three writers sitting around, he’s free not to use them, he’s free to write every script, he’s free to use them for research or to pop in now and then and ask for an idea. Otherwise, let’s just subsidize them showing up to work and eating snacks, and leaving at night. But I do think there does need to be a minimum room size to support what we’re doing in the long term. The amount of shows that have those singular visions are so few and far between compared to the vast majority of the rest of the industry that this is a hill worth dying on.

FB:

But also, isn’t it the idea of these mini rooms that you’ve been putting together, where they’re not officially assured it’s moving forward, and yet you’re doing the same work that you would have been doing if it was greenlit? That seems to be a major problem.

CM:

Yeah, we need to get more clarity and definition on what constitutes a room, the length of the room, and the population of that room. I think mini rooms started as a potentially interesting idea. Before we greenlight this thing and bring in 10 people, the showrunner wants to bring in two or three of their closest collaborators and really figure out what the thing is before we dive into it. The principle is unique and interesting. But the problem with that model is, all of a sudden, it was, “Okay, well, if you think you can get most of it done with three people in 10 weeks, why are we going to give 10 people and 20 weeks? So the burden falls on too few writers, who then aren’t allowed to go to set, and aren’t allowed to amass that experience and learn how to produce.

I certainly ascribe to the theory that so much of what we’re talking about stems from a lack of smart, creative producing in Hollywood today. When streaming became a thing 10-15 years ago, when it was a kernel of an idea, the thought was always, let’s take the mid-budget movie ($50-$90 million) and amortize that budget across 10 episodes versus two hours. We’ll be able to dig into the character and we’ll tell more story, I don’t think it was, necessarily, this level of spending a billion dollars on The Lord of the Rings IP was the initial thought. When you’re making these big spends that equate to what you spend on a theatrical mega-budget summer blockbuster, you can’t possibly recoup your costs. We’re at a point where shows are spending so much money that they don’t have to spend.

12 Monkeys television series logo, with the words in off-white in front of a dark red monkey face logo with 12 monkeys dancing around it in a circle.

I look back at my time on 12 Monkeys, where I went and lived in Toronto for 18 months, and produced seasons three and four, back-to-back with Terry Matalas and a handful of other writers. That is a unique and rare experience. We produced a time-travel show where the protagonist was going to different times every week and it often looped back on each other. There’d be something in this episode that didn’t pay off for 10 episodes. We crashed a time-traveling city into another time-traveling city. We had spectacle and production value and we did it for $2.7 million an episode. We were really smart about how we produced it because we understood when to go abroad, how to cross-board episodes, how to work with actors, and work with each department to get the most bang for your buck. That is not something we would have been able to do if we didn’t have writers who were emboldened and taught and instructed and had the experience of learning how to keep those costs down so that we didn’t have to do it for $5-10 million an episode when we could do it effectively for less than three.

I think we have to empower power writers to learn their trade and to become good at that aspect of this industry. The more you can keep budgets down, the more that we can keep studios from having to freak out about their bottom lines and having to take content off platforms. The more we can keep writers working, the more shows we can produce for the same amount.

FB:

The notion of streaming coming in was that they were going to buy their way into the market. In the same way, Amazon sold books and lost money, but took a big piece of that business, when Netflix came along and spent a lot of money on House of Cards, they bought their way to the top echelon of Hollywood and continued to spend, and everybody jumped on. Now, of course, the market’s been saturated.

What’s going to be desirable, I would think from a studio standpoint, is finding folks like you and that team that did 12 Monkeys and trying to produce shows for more reasonable costs with broader storytelling and hiring more writers and empowering them.

CM:

I also think there’s an interesting thing going on from an audience perspective, too. You’re seeing it with the box office reception to The Flash or even Indiana Jones, for example. Spectacle is so available on every platform. You can go see a billion-dollar, Lord of the Rings fight sequence on TV. Also, the stakes in big-budget, blockbuster IP-driven stories are the end of the world, the destruction of the universe, and the collapse of the multiverse. There’s no respite from these artificial ridiculously high stakes that you can never top.

It’s never been more important for writers to get in there and say, “Look, you don’t have to do a $250 million Avengers movie, where the fate of the world hangs in the balance again. Maybe you can do three $100 million Avengers movies, where the stakes are more emotional and more personal, but the concept is still really high.” What’s Ocean’s 11 with the Avengers? You can find all of these touchstones to make movies that still have all this stuff in them that audiences love, but are more creative about the story, the emotions, and the themes. You can make them cost less too and then the audience will feel like they haven’t seen this in the eight other things.

The one Marvel show I responded to the most, and this isn’t a criticism of any of the shows on their own, but I really liked She-Hulk. Because the stakes weren’t like, “Oh my God, this is the end of the world!” It was, is she going to find happiness? Is she going to find contentment? How is she going to navigate this strange, unique thing that has happened? And how could she do that and keep herself and her family and her friends together? It was written cleverly and warmly and it probably didn’t cost $300 million to make. I found it really refreshing and really original. You need writers more than ever to tell you how to take all the great ingredients that IP gives you and execute them at a high concept level at high quality for less money.

It’s not superhero, or I.P., or blockbuster fatigue, but there’s a certain level of stakes fatigue like we’re telling the same story over and over again.

FB:

People are looking for a fresh take. I remember when The Joker came out and it was so dark and so interesting. I did not expect that it would be so successful.

But the great thing about television is, there are so many options. I saw on Twitter, you mentioned Drops of God. I’ve been watching Drops of God along with Hijack on Apple and that’s a really unique, interesting story framed in a way that I never would have expected a story about wine and vineyards to be framed.

Image of 2 people staring each other down, with a table of 3 people looking onwards, judging them. A large portrait of some important man looms just out of focus in the background. From a TV series Drops of God

CM:

I loved it. It’s so beautiful and unique. It’s the perfect way to lean into this thing that streamers are looking for now, which is, wanting to make one thing that can serve a bunch of audiences. It figured out a way to tell a French story and a Japanese story in an American way that allowed any of those audiences to plug into it and yet it was emotional and visually interesting. It’s one of my favorite shows this year by a mile because good writers figured out how to execute it well.

FB:

It’s a great example of writers having a voice that AI could never replicate. Also, that idea of the multicultural. They have the same thing going on in Hijack, which is pretty exciting.

CM:

That show speaks to what we’ve been talking about. We’re gonna build one set, we’re gonna spend our money on that. Then we’re going to tell a seven-episode story. That’s a fairly financially responsible way to make television and if you can execute that at its highest level, I don’t think audiences will find themselves wishing for $100 million on screen. I think they’ll be captivated by what they’re watching.

FB:

Your story and your career trajectory are interesting. You started as a journalist. Was IGN your first gig?

CM:

I began my career in PR and marketing. I was always a nerd growing up and my first real gig in that universe was working for Microsoft and launching the Xbox 360.

FB:

You said you were a nerd. Were you taking your interests and saying, “How am I going to figure out how to work at a cool company that does games?” For those people that are coming out of college and thinking about being in the business, you need a first step. What was your strategy?

CM:

Growing up, I always knew that I loved reading, writing, and video games. I loved books. I was a big genre nerd my whole life. I was going to Fordham University in New York, which doesn’t have a phenomenally strong film program but they do have a good communications program and decent screenwriting classes. But that was never going to tip the scales for me so I started writing for the school paper. I didn’t have any money but I still wanted to play video games and listen to music and read comics and I realized I could call companies and ask to review products they’ll send to me for free. So, I really embraced this idea of journalism as a way to get paid to consume and do all the things I love doing anyway and write, as well.

The second strategy that I figured out was that I was going to get more value from internships than from the actual classes. So I started interning for a lot of the same people I was asking for stuff from. I was an intern for Fox’s marketing and PR department. Then I went to Sony and then DreamWorks and I tried to learn as much about the industry as I could and make as many contacts as I could. So, when I got out of college, I was equipped to go do marketing and PR. It wasn’t necessarily my dream, I wanted to be a writer, but it was adjacent to the things that I cared about. After a couple of years, eventually, the journalists I was working with every day said, “Hey, you can make more money over with us playing the video games and watching the movies and critiquing them than you can shilling for them on a PR site.”

I’ve always said to anybody who asked me because there is no one path to success in this business, that the most you can do is put yourself where lightning can strike and cover yourself in as much tinfoil as you can. That’s really what I was doing in the early years of my career. I went from college to that one job which led to another job that was a little bit closer to what I really wanted to do. Then, while I was at IGN, I was able to make all these great friendships and relationships with producers and actors, which five years later paid off with my first staffing gig. There wasn’t a grand master plan, it was a selfish desire to get paid to be the thing that I had been my whole life, which was just a genre nerd.

FB:

How were those internships?

CM:

They were all basic internships, all unpaid. The college only asked you to do one, but I did three, just to learn and grow and make those relationships and I liked doing them.

My first job as an intern was going to the entertainment section of hundreds of newspapers and seeing if there was an article about something our company had done, physically cutting it out, putting it on a piece of paper, and photocopying it. Then I’d put a book together and make 100 copies of that book and distribute that to everyone. That wasn’t a particularly rewarding job but I became very close with my boss and over three of those internships, I came out with a pretty complex understanding of how the business works.

FB:

You also wrote a novel while you were working at IGN, as I remember.

Image of Clive Barker and the main character from the Hellraiser series: Pinhead.

CM:

It was a short story. When I was at IGN, I got to meet Clive Barker, who had always been a hero of mine as a kid. I was doing an interview with Clive and we were talking about my upbringing and my love of his work and he goes, “I don’t think you’re a journalist. I think you’re a writer. Pick something of mine and adapt it. I’ll give you the rights.”

He mentored me and I did two movies for his production company. I never made a ton of money, but they were great opportunities to get my start and take my writing to the next level. Through him, I got to do a Hellraiser graphic novel that was eight issues long and this Nightbreed story. It was one of the centerpiece stories at the heart of this collection they were doing. A bunch of great authors were contributing short stories and novellas to a collection based on his Nightbreed universe. That was a joy. He was the first major personality with a reputation in the industry to take me under his wing and see my potential and try to nurture it.

FB:

I remember you wrote an episode of Hatter Madigan for me around the same time. You had pitched me the story of Hatter in the Wild West in Death Valley.

But you come across as the kind of person that has a lot of story engine inside of them. How do you see yourself as a writer in terms of your strengths?

CM:

My story is unique in the sense that I grew up loving video games, comic books, and all the nerd stuff that a lot of really terrific genre writers grew up with, but my uncle was a theater guy. He introduced me to writers like Sam Shepard, David Mamet, and Arthur Miller. So, I became a fan of really finely honed, character-driven dialogue. I was also fortunate enough to be a teenager in the Miramax years, the rise of the independent movie, where there were all these amazing writers like Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh, with hyper-specific voices were being allowed to make these really interesting films.

Then you had someone like, I know that circumstances have made the name a little passe at this point, Joss Whedon came along and took all this really sharp, stylized, amazing dialogue and applied it to genre storytelling. These people can be talking as cleverly as someone in a David Mamet play or an Aaron Sorkin drama.

I like to think that’s where I bring value to a room. I can do the big swing 35,000-foot sci-fi concepts but then also more granularly, do a great scene with really crackly dialogue and sharp character work. I’ll never write a broad comedy. I’m not funny. We had a writer on Picard, Cindy, who’s tremendously funny. I could never do that and I’m in awe of that kind of talent. But dialogue writers were really my biggest influence in film and TV coming up.

FB:

I studied acting for a short time under Stella Adler and one of the things she required was for you to study playwrights like David Mamet and understand where they were coming from so you could really grasp the work. I think I learned more from playwrights and the economy of storytelling and the necessity for great dialogue to make things work. It’s satisfying as an actor, but I was really fascinated with their backstories, the reason they became writers, and how these plays came about. That was very influential to me in writing The Looking Glass Wars.

CM:

No one will ever accuse me of writing a scene with naturalistic dialogue. There’s no right or wrong here but I know a lot of writers who want their characters to talk the way people really speak. I’m 180 degrees in the opposite direction. I love words and I want my characters to use those words as best as they possibly can and in the most inventive combinations. I look at shows like Succession, and I’m just in awe of the way they’ll take a simple idea and wrap it in the bacon of this incredible verbiage. Or Steven Moffat on Doctor Who, who has this amazing crackerjack, very twee kind of dialogue, or Amy Sherman Palladino has this machine gun rat-a-tat-tat of words. I really love the mechanics of constructing a sentence with wordplay and rhythms in a way that other writers don’t find value in because, for them, it’s about making the scene as human as possible and as relatable as possible. For me, if I go to the theater and I see a truck turn into a robot, I want the dialogue equivalent of that. I want to go see entertainment in a way that I don’t experience in real life. I want to see people talk at a level I wish I could talk at. That’s my jumble of influences.

FB:

With the story you wrote for me, the first thing that I read was Hatter’s interior dialogue. That’s how the story opens. I thought you were able to get into his head and be very poetic at the same time, and then set the story up for a classic villain who underestimated our exceedingly talented and deadly hero who is “the other”.

The dialogue was very poetic and not all that realistic. I think there was a line where the bad guy said, “You have a six-shooter?” because he wanted to draw on Hatter and Hatter responds, “Yeah, it’s under my hat.”

Pages from Hatter M: The Nature of Wonder Volume 3, by Frank Beddor, Liz Cavalier & Sami Makkonen. Hatter wearing his long blue coat fights cowboy bad guys -- in a standoff.

CM:

I remember when you first introduced me to your world, Hatter was the character that I plugged into immediately because I am such a Doctor Who fan and I’m so deeply influenced by it. Hatter Madigan and Doctor Who are nothing alike but they are these lone heroes unstuck in time and they have the flexibility to find themselves moving through their narratives in these nonlinear ways. There’s something I’ve just always liked about those kinds of stories, whether it’s Sam Beckett and Quantum Leap, or Doctor Who. These characters want, in a weird way, what everybody experiences. They just want to go from Point A to Point B to get the thing that they so desperately want, but because of the way their life is structured, they can’t get there that way. There’s something beautiful and lonely and interesting, whether the character is as serious and action-focused as Hatter or as whimsical as Doctor Who. I’ve always loved those kinds of stories.

FB:

I was quite rigid in the story structure with Hatter, not in terms of dialogue, but in terms of following historical events, so that it would feel like the audience could really suspend disbelief in terms of the notion that this was a real place. But in exploring television, and exploring the idea of doing this as an ongoing show, conversations I’ve had with you and other people was, “Why doesn’t Hatter go through a portal to our world in 1871, why shouldn’t you have him time jump and start to create that fish out of water in all sorts of times, and have that contemporary lens?” It’s a really interesting idea, getting into The Looking Glass Wars through Hatter and his time in our world. I just haven’t quite been brave enough to pull the trigger on that, because I keep thinking, “Where’s Alyss in this? Would I be cutting back to Alyss? Or would I just simply leave her until this series runs its course for three, four seasons, and then introduce Alyss and expand it?

CM:

You’ve quite purposefully created a world that there are 10 ways into. You could choose any of those and they would be wildly successful approaches.

FB:

I don’t know if they’d be wildly successful but maybe if you helped me out, they would be. But I’m exploring that. You and I worked together when we did that mini room to explore the structure of The Looking Glass Wars TV show. The Queen’s Gambit hadn’t come out and I thought it would be interesting to start the show where you have a cold open of the adult character and then you would use the first episode to tell the origin story. But I still think that most people who read The Looking Glass Wars hook into Hatter. He’s the most popular character.

CM:

Hatter, in some ways, is the wish fulfillment. We all wish we could be as cool as that character and as composed and as strong and stalwart. I always loved Alice in the original books because she’s so driven by a sense of curiosity and discovery. I think we all are. We all in our own lives come to a rabbit hole and wonder what’s down there. And it’s, are we brave enough to jump or not? Curiosity, especially for writers, is the best quality you can have. The most important quality you can have is to wonder why and to wonder what and then to go chase those things and experience them and manifest those things in your own life. I think what you’ve done in your fiction is to expand upon that. You have these two central characters and one is about curiosity and discovery and then the other is very much about loyalty. He is on this mission, experiencing this other world, but it’s with an almost singular purpose to get back to where he’s from. He’s not interested in shedding that purpose to discover and consume and learn. He just wants to blaze through the world. I think there’s a little bit of all of those characters in everybody.

FB:

Though, the wish fulfillment and blazing ahead, in terms of doing a series, would probably get a bit old if he wasn’t able to have interior difficult problems, that he’s failing, and how that affects his search and his personality and these obstacles that he comes across.

You brought up the word curious. In my book series, I always use imagination. What do you think about the combination of curiosity versus imagination to ultimately create something?

CM:

I think imagination is just an extension of curiosity. Curiosity is standing in front of the rabbit hole and imagination is picturing what might be down there and the reality is, whatever you’ll discover when you jump.

I have traveled more than this but, maybe you’ve never been to Europe before and you’re curious about it, and you want to break out of your American view of the world. So you get your passport and you go to Europe, and you taste the Netherlands and you see Paris and you see Italy and you experience all these wonderful cultures and foods. Imagination is taking that experience and saying, “Okay, what if that happened in a fantasy world? What if that happened in a sci-fi world? And you’re able to write those stories better because you’ve empathetically, as a human being, shared that same degree of experience in your own set of contexts and life.”  The key is coupling that sense of real empathy for what is out there in the world and then applying imagination to it. Curiosity and imagination are inseparable.

FB:

There are levels. It’s also research and curiosity, immersing yourself in whatever that thing is that you’re interested in, and then trying to imagine what you’re going to create and then working on creating that. It’s all a part of this zone that we’d like to get into where those two come together and give you some inspiration.

CM:

I think some writers can do both and some writers have made wonderful careers out of doing one. Certain writers have their things. Carl Hiaasen will always write books about Florida. He knows one thing and he’s gonna drill down until he’s explored every nook and crevice of the one thing that he knows well. Other writers will say, “Well, I want to experience the world and I’ll go write that.” Both are fine because they’re driven by a curiosity to understand either many new things or better understand the one thing that you find yourself around. It takes the same quantity of imagination to tell the smallest, most granular story as it does to tell the biggest, most fanciful.

FB:

Were you introduced to Alice in Wonderland through the novel, the Disney movie, or something else?

CM:

Through the books. Growing up, my grandfather always really encouraged me to read. He would go to yard sales and tag sales and people would just throw books out on their tables for a quarter. So my grandfather would always come back from the sales with a paper bag of books that he found for me. A lot of those books were older. Doc Savage novels, which still predated me by 20-30 years. So, at a pretty young age, I was reading John Carter of Mars, old Doc Savage books, and pulp stories that he would pull from these tag sales. Eventually, he brought home a really beautiful hardcover version of Alice in Wonderland. I can’t remember exactly what age I was but I remember it being really formative for me. I really enjoyed it and then I think the animated versions came after that.

My experience with Alice was unique in the sense that my first visual of it was whatever I made up in my head. I wasn’t cobbling it together from cultural reference points.

FB:

Which most of us are doing now because it’s so deeply seated in culture. Have you seen it much in television? I see images of Alice popping up. I think it came up in Stranger Things.

CM:

It’s gotten to a point now where you’re like, “Yeah, okay, we get it.” It’s a staple but if I hear “White Rabbit” as the soundtrack to a given scene ever again it’s, “I get it, guys.” Alice is a universal story in the sense that every story, whether it’s Star Trek or Lord of the Rings, it’s the hero’s journey. We’re leaving home, we’re going to a strange place where we’re going to find out things about ourselves and that change in us will allow us to complete our journey and hopefully come home. That structure of storytelling shares inherent DNA with Alice so it makes sense that it pops up everywhere.

FB:

Do you have a favorite? Whether it’s a song or a movie or any piece of art of Alice that resonated with you along the way?

Illustration from the graphic Novel: American McGee, Alice. Based on characters from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, or just Alice in Wonderland. This is a painting of Alice sitting at a table, having tea with the Mad Hatter.

CM:

The American McGee Alice games because I like horror a lot. It was great to see someone step in and do a darker, horror-driven take on these things. I like that game quite a bit and there’s been talk ever since it came out about there potentially being another so it gets refreshed in my gaming zeitgeist every couple of years. I remember that making an impression upon me in terms of one of the first adaptations of that material that was really interesting and cool and visual and unique and spun it in a way that it wasn’t just telling the same story. It was telling a different story from a different point of view, which I liked a lot.

But I’m of the opinion that the best adaptation of Alice in Wonderland has yet to be made. I go back through all the various ones that I’ve seen, and I don’t think I love any of them. The Disney ones, whether it’s the Johnny Depp one or the original, they’re so polished. I’m waiting for Guillermo del Toro to try it or Tarsem Singh, or a filmmaker who weirdly uses practical and CG in an interesting way because so much of Alice to me is tangible. Other parts of it are very painted and illustrative. None of the other adaptations I’ve seen get the balance that I’ve pictured in my head for so long.

FB:

It’s also a struggle, because she’s 13, and it’s seemingly episodic. Everybody that’s done a take on it, including myself, tries to find a structure that allows the reluctant hero story to play out in a way in which you can suspend disbelief and buy into it.

CM:

Stranger Things is an Alice in Wonderland story in a weird way. We went into the upside down, and they cast those kids young and they made it work.

FB:

But in television, you have a little bit more opportunity, and certainly, when you have a show, and even movies that have both young characters and adult characters, you have those four quadrants. That show can be nostalgic as an adult and it can feel completely fresh for my 13-year-old.

CM:

There’s a weird Ouroboros effect with these IPs. With Alice, the book is published and it comes into the zeitgeist, and it inspires all these other works. There is an Alice in Wonderland quality to all of these other different stories that are being told in different genres. It gets absorbed into the zeitgeist in other ways, whether it’s a poster in the background or a music cue that nods to their roots in Alice. Then, eventually, it comes back around to, now we want to remake the thing that inspired all the things that inspired us to remake it. Do we remake it using all of the iconography of the things that it inspired? Do we use the visual language of all of the different iterations? Or do we have to find some new visual language to tell that story again? Because otherwise, it’s a song that’s singing itself.

That’s what you’ve done so well with creating your world. You found another way into it, that visualizes it differently and contextualizes it differently. It feels like Alice without feeling either too dissimilar or too similar. I think that’s what you guys have been doing brilliantly in your world.

FB:

Thank you. I’ve been trying to push outside of what people know as Wonderland. Whether it’s bringing Wonderland to another culture, another timeline, or expanding the geography of Wonder nations. I’m looking to expand with other writers and other voices who can see the world in a way that, having done this for 20 years, I might not be able to do or see. It’s been interesting and exciting to talk to other creators about handing over the universe and saying, “What would you do with this?”

That whole collaborative effort, whether it was working with you in the room, collaborating on a graphic novel, and now working on a game, it’s very exciting to have a world that is big enough with a bright enough canvas that attracts other creators.

Cartoon illustration of Mumbatton East Indian Spider-Man, as seen in the latest installment of Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse.

CM:

Even looking at something as recent as Across the Spider-Verse. Even just that little section where they dip into Mumbatton. For 10 minutes of the movie, we’re going to show you what Spider-Man through an East Indian lens looks like. There’s a lot to explore there and you realize, even just telling the same story with a slightly different aesthetic, or cultural view, gives it all these new layers. It’s not just a quick glow-up. It gives it a real depth. I could have spent two hours in just Mumbatton alone learning what that kind of Spider-Man story would be like. It’s great that you give other authors voices to explore these things from other angles because there’s a lot to find there.

FB:

I know you have a lot of original work. You’re obviously on this big show but you’ve written a lot of pilots. I know before the strike, you were pitching projects. Tell me where you’re at with some of your original work. I remember you did something called The Survivors.

CM:

I had a run there where I would write these pilots that I would send to my reps, and they would go, “Yeah, no, I don’t think anyone wants to do anything with that.” Then, a year later, some other version of it would be huge. I had written a script called Survivors, back in 2014, which was about a support group for the survivors of various horror movie scenarios. At the time, I was patting myself on the back for having such an original idea. But my reps were like, “Oh, this is a little meta. I don’t know if it’s gonna work, blah, blah, blah.” Years later, how many seasons deep are we into American Horror Story? Also, there’s a terrific novel called Final Girl Support Group that came out a few years later that touched upon the same concept.

Still to this day, the pilot that I’m proudest of is a restaurant drama. It’s about two brothers who couldn’t be more different, forced to come back together after the death of their father. But, at the time, my reps were like, “Nobody wants a food show.” Now you have The Bear.

All you can do is write what you’re passionate about writing and keep writing, which is the problem I’m struggling with now. The strike is such a stressful time that it tempts you to take a break. You think, “I’ll put my pen down because I can’t do anything with what I make anyway, or blah blah blah.” But that muscle can atrophy. So, you have to pick up the pen and work at it every day.

I’ve got a horror feature I’m working on now, which I can’t say too much about. But every day I go to write it and I kind of shake my head and think, “Why am I this insane?” This idea is crazy. Hopefully, there’ll be some life in that at some point. Terry Matalas and I have a number of things on deck that we’d like to do, and hopefully, we’ll be able to do once the skies clear and the strike is over. We have a retelling of Phantom of the Opera that we’ve been wanting to do forever and we’d love to find a way to make that happen. Terry certainly wants to keep on exploring the world of Star Trek and hopefully, the powers that be will let us do that. It’s writing a new pilot, writing a new feature, and then hoping when this all resolves itself, we can get back in a room because that’s really where I love to be. I love sitting in a room with smart people coming up with cool stuff.

FB:

In the room we put together you always were the first to jump in almost every time.

CM :

It’s ‘cause I’m obnoxious.

FB:

Yes, you are very obnoxious, which is such a superpower. I wish I was a lot more obnoxious having witnessed you jumping in but you were a driver of the room. It was super helpful to be fearless in sharing an idea that people could jump on and start to riff off of so you need that. It’s no surprise that you’ve gone from show to show and that you and Terry have a strong partnership and understanding.

CM:

I’m starting to believe this, and maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like it has a lot to do with having worked on a time travel show. Because when you’re working in time travel, not only do you have to have these big creative sci-fi ideas and couple that with emotional character-driven ideas but you have to think, “Well, if we do this, then it undoes this because it goes back in time so that wouldn’t work.” Your brain teaches itself to iterate really quickly, to have a really good idea, explore it, realize if it contradicts something else in the time travel, and if it does, throw it out and go back because you can’t lose the time. Then if it works, great, go to the next idea.

I found that a lot of the writers who came from 12 Monkeys have all described entering subsequent rooms and feeling like they’re going faster than everybody. They’ll pitch 10 things and maybe other people in the room have pitched one and they feel like the asshole, like, “Oh my God, I am bullying my way into the room? Am I being too loud? Am I pitching too much?” And I think it’s just because we’ve taught our brains to iterate and calculate the math of a story beat in multiple timelines, and it makes your brain faster. It really is a testament to the more you do this, and the more you do it with great people who challenge you, the better you become. You can take half of your idea and half of their idea and make something that’s better than either idea. It’s an amazing feeling. There’s nothing I love more than working with great writers.

FB:

I have had a delightful time chatting with you, reconnecting, and talking about the business and your career, and fingers crossed for the strike and fingers crossed for this new idea.

CM:

Thank you for having me. I always love reconnecting with you and it’s great to be able to have a long-form conversation and really dig into it. This was a blast.


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