By Dan Haring
Me again. Ilsa is under some crazy deadlines, so she asked me to take her turn this week. A few months back I did an interview with author Heather Dixon, and I thought I'd share it here, as she offers some great advice and information.
I've been lucky enough to know Heather for almost 10 years now. She was a year ahead of me in the BYU animation program, and it was a blast getting to know her and working with her. If you follow her Story Monster blog, which I suggest you do, you'll find she has a wonderfully dark sense of humor. It's even better because it's hidden beneath such a sweet exterior. Her debut novel ENTWINED is a fantastic read. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did! (It's pretty long, so make sure you click through)
I had to research the 12 Dancing Princesses because I'd never heard of the fairytale before. First off, I have to say that it's pretty rad that you're on the wikipedia entry for it. High five for that. What drew you to this fairytale originally, and how did the idea for the retelling come about?
Ooo, I scored on Wikipedia? Awesome ^_^ I'll have to check that out.
I started the story back at the beginning of 2006, when I was taking a bunch of dance classes and majoring in animation. The story, with its silver forests and ballgowns and waltzes, is intensely visual and when it struck me, I couldn't get it out of my head. I had to write it down.
(It helped, of course, that I grew up in a large family--with 10 brothers and sisters, I felt a special connection with a story about 12 sisters ^_^)
You're also a storyboard artist. How does boarding inform your writing? Do you ever board out scenes before you write them?
I often don't board out scenes I'm writing (it's often more time-consuming than the words), but I do like to draw beat boards to the chapters--quick sketches that mark the mood, staging, and tension of the piece. Strangely enough that's been helping me with pacing, because once I sort out which beat boards to draw, those are the marker points in the story that need the most focus.
That's a really cool method. In my own writing, I sometimes sketch out maps or layouts of buildings to help me keep track of where things are taking place. Do you do anything like that?
You bet! It's especially helpful with staging, & world-building too I think. Right now I'm working on a story with a steampunk ship, which involves looking up a lot of airship & seaship diagrams, then mapping out what this certain ship would look like. It makes the story & scenes quite a bit more distinct I think.
As an animator and storyboard artist, you've honed your observational skills pretty well I'm sure. How do you think this helps you as a writer?
I can think of two huge things that, in the development process of being an artist, have really helped me as a writer. The first is collecting references--in art, you have a picture you want to draw, so you collect a bunch of pictures to refer to as you create. I did that in writing--I read so many books on Queen Victoria, Victoriana, Victorian dancing, princess books, books that had a style I wanted to emulate--I really believe that this research made the book stronger.
Secondly, I appreciate how (in animation especially) artists have to work with groups. Being in that sort of collaboration-mentorship process had made me more self-aware and honest in how I regard my work. I feel very grateful for that.
The major theme of Entwined seems to be one of forgiveness. Was this something you went into the story with, or did it evolve as you wrote?
The theme developed along with the story, though the father-daughter relationship is a marker in the original 12 Dancing Princesses--(why would their father lock them in their room?) When the theme had been fully developed (about a year or so into the process)--that was when the story took off and I got really excited about it. I think every story hinges on theme. It's the spine.
I feel strongly that all the stories I develop in animation or writing should have redemption. Azalea's family is redeemed from broken, angry relationships, the character in my story now has to redeem himself from his own poor choices. Redemption, I believe, is the story: the theme to everyone's life. I think everyone wants to strive to be better and yearns for redemption.
I'd never thought about it like that, but you make a great point. What's your favorite part of writing? Hardest and easiest parts?
I adore revision. There's a serious high that comes from taking a crummy bit of writing, and turning it into something strong. I love that part best.
Least favorite part?
I don't much like doing the first draft. And, the attention authors sometimes have, that's made me a bit shy. I like keeping to behind-the-scenes.
I've found that to be a big parallel between the animation field and the writing field. People who pursue those disciplines tend to shy away from the spotlight. Unfortunately with writing a lot of emphasis is placed on self-promotion. Have you had issues with that?
Fortunately people have been really kind & understanding. I have an odd way of doing promotion--I animated the book trailer, made "Entwined" coloring pages and paper dolls, but I can't bring myself to sign books. I like promotion best when I can quietly learn & create. Thankfully I have a great publisher who has been supportive of my non-traditional twitchy ways.
What did you think of the Barbie version of the Twelve Dancing Princesses? (I know you've seen it. :)
Hahaha! I love it and am not ashamed to say! XD
What’s your writing process, if you have a specific one? Does it usually start with a story idea, or a character, or something else?
Weirdly enough, it starts with pictures. I see images in my mind that develop to scenes--a girl with auburn hair trying to pull away from a dance partner, palace windows lit up at night, glittering white trees, a ball with black animal masks and weird yellow light. These image-flashes develop into scenes...some stay, others get thrown out with the development of plot and characters.
That's awesome. Do you ever sketch out those images from your head?
I do! They often get thrown out as the story changes though. Poor sketch graveyard :D
It's okay. They all go to heaven. Once you have your general idea, do you outline extensively or just write as you go?
I like to outline, mostly because I'm forgetful. And, I agree too with the Cheshire Cat--you have to know where you're going, otherwise "...it really doesn't matter which way you go."
Who's your favorite princess? Favorite Disney princess?
I like all the princesses, esp. Cinderella and Rapunzel, but I gotta say my favorite is Aurora. She has such beautiful design. (Esp in her peasant dress.)
Favorite villain? Favorite Disney villain?
Booooy that's a hard one. I really like villains! I have a thing for Barnaby from Babes in Toyland, also I think Bowler Hat Guy from "Meet the Robinsons" is quite good, along with Hades, Maleficent, Count Olaf, Yzma, Scrooge (does he count?) and Lina Lamont. My favorite Disney one...probably Frollo from "Hunchback of Notre Dame". That fireplace scene...yikes. I left the theater shaking.
You're currently writing a steampunk novel. What can you tell us about it?
The story is titled "Illusionarium," and it's about a boy, Jacks, who can illusion with a strange, illegal chemical that causes shared hallucinations. It's such an addictive chemical that Jacks finds himself embroiled in danger with circuses, airships, the government, and an abandoned floating city. It's very stylized, as anything with evil Victorian clowns probably is.
That sounds amazing. Will it be more action-oriented than Entwined? Do you enjoy writing action scenes? Do you approach them a certain way?
It is very action-oriented, which I love. The main character is killed in chapter 1, and that's how the story takes off. If you've seen my boards you know I enjoy gags & timing, so action is something that's perfect for both of those techniques. One question I've asked myself as I've developed the story is: Now how can I make things even worse for this character? And then I just go from there.
Since you updated the 12 Dancing Princesses to Victorian era, and your current novel is steampunk, I'm sensing a trend. What draws you to the Victorian era?
Everything. It's so rich and stylized, and yet isn't that much different from us. (It is, after all, only a few generations away!) It was a time that underwent a whirlwind of discovery and innovation, industry, religion & science. The more I study it, the closer it feels. Also: Queen Victoria. I adore her.
Do you prefer writing or storyboarding? Or does it just depend on the day?
Depends on the day--I like both ^_^
Some people love Robert McKee, other people not so much. What do you think of this quote of his? "Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact."
I'm not terribly familiar with Robert McKee, but I do agree with this quote. I think intuitively people yearn for resolution & redemption, which is what stories are.
What's your dream job? (Assuming you're not currently doing it)
I like storyboarding quite a bit, and hope to continue with it. I do enjoy writing & story development as well. So I guess I am already doing my dream!
Do you listen to music as you write? If so, who?
I listen to a lot of soundtracks. Lots of Hans Zimmer, Patrick Doyle, Alan Menken, Danny Elfman, John Williams, John Powell, Miklos Rosza, James Newton Howard, Alan Silvestri, Nicholas Hooper...and all those talented fellas.
Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman are my two favorite composers. Do you have a favorite score you keep going back to, or do you just cycle through them? (I'm partial to the Batman scores from each of them, but all their stuff is great)
Ooo--there are few songs I keep going back to! Hans Zimmer's "Davy Jones" is a favorite, among his other Pirates work. And I'm with you, I love Danny Elfman's Batman, "Batman Returns" being a favorite. Also his "Black Beauty", "Edward Scissorhands", "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"...ALL TEH SONG
Any advice for aspiring artists/writers?
Remind yourself to be a creator. You don't have to be good, you don't have to be published, you don't have to be famous or rich to be a creator. Focus on improving yourself every day, practicing, being honest with yourself. Write short stories, poems, longer stories, do speedpaints, fanarts, daily drawings, anything that is craft & story-centric. I have a great deal of respect for artists and writers who, no matter what their skill level, focus on learning and creating.
And finally, and probably most importantly, your favorite superhero?
Tough one! I think my favorite is Batman, the Adam West take. There's just something about the 60s...
There you go. Heather is a Batman fan, which is another reason to like her. I'd like to thank Heather for taking the time to do this interview. I can't wait to read Illusionarium, and if you haven't checked out Entwined yet, you definitely should!