Interview by Alan Dean Foster

Author and friend Alan Dean Foster did me the honor of interrogating me, the text of which I reproduce here in full.  If he feels the need to follow up, I'm sure he will.  And I thank him.

1) Do you ever consciously construct 9cwl and Pib as if you were composing music?  In other words, do you see scenes and sequences that you render visually as their musical counterparts?  Lento/adagio for a love scene, allegro furioso for a violent argument, and so on?

In the more prolonged scenes and situations, I tend to develop characters as though they were themes in a piece of music.  Sometimes that yields long passages of images and/or dialogue on the same topic, rather like meandering through tonalities and bouncing them about through varieties of counterpoint.  It feels that way, anyway.  It can only happen if I give myself the time, day after day, to move them sequentially through an actual development.  For instance, where the scenes should be slow, tender and attentive to little details that signal an evening of undulating passion between the counterpanes (an occasion I evoke through the depiction of hands and fingers, sometimes toes, intermingling) I definitely feel the scene has a little “Largo Throbamente” inscribed above it.

2) Apropos question #1, do you hear specific musical references when you're drawing a scene?  Do you listen to music when you're working, and does that influence or inspire what you are drawing?

I do listen to music while I draw, but only when I’ve passed beyond the composition of the art – that is, once I’ve sketched the cartoon on the page.  At the point when I move to drawing in the final line art, I can listen to music, or to someone reading to me, or a phone conversation in the next room, or I can hold the conversation myself.  The moment I have to revise or rethink the composition of the work, I go deaf, dumb and nearly blind except to what I’m drawing.  I’ve never used a piece of music for inspiration (that I can think of), but I have composed sequences of drawings that must be read with a particular piece of music playing.  One I can recall off the top of my head is a sequence of cartoon choreography for a short ballet to music by Richard Strauss.  I know it will never take place onstage, so I just draw the dancers and cue the music myself.

When I draw a scene that is heavily suggestive of, for instance, a romantic scene, pieces of music will well up to support my mood.  When I was drawing scenes of Edie and Kiesl approaching the consummation of their love, I had Léhar’s “Komm in Den Kleinen Pavillon” burning away in my mind.

3) Do certain of your female characters represent a physical and/or personality ideal...someone you'd like to know (or avoid)?  Or are they more often created to fulfill a story need?
They fulfill the story, or the story provokes their actions.  I have no interest in female characters who are doormats, and would hate writing for them.  Edie Ernst began her story as a bit of an innocent, and somewhat passive, but that allowed me to develop her into what she became.  Nobody should be idealized, for good or bad, or they have nowhere to go, nothing to regret, nothing to apologize for, no wrong decisions to make.

That said, we all bring our tastes and preferences, conscious or un-, into what we compose.

4) Other than your immediate family, are any of your characters based on people you know or have met, or have read about?

Some are – not all.  The most specific to a person known to me was Gran.  She began with a personality that sometimes was a direct transcription, in word and deed.  The problem with that was, she was so true to the model’s behavior that she came across as completely two-dimensional.  I ultimately started giving her traits that made her able to be likeable from time to time.

Other than Gran, the character of Burkahrdt Kriegl is, in his personality, very much the image of a violist I knew in Austria.  He would not, however, recognize himself.  The image was changed to protect the innocent.  In the beginning, Amos was a portrait not of me, but of how I felt when I was in the seventh grade (I didn’t look like that).  And Isabel Florin is a portrait of my wife as I saw her when we met (we were music students at Juilliard).  My wife never had Isabel’s personality, but the looks were hers; and she’s always glad to see Isabel show up in a cartoon.  (Wait a minute, you said “other than your immediate family...”  I apologize.)

5)  You would, by the population at large, be regarded as more than usually erudite.  Do you find that, when you're working on either strip, you have to consciously tone down your vocabulary to appeal to a more general audience?

I never tone down what I do.  That would diminish the fun of it, and I see no reason to insult my audience by writing in any other fashion.  I have received correspondence from some readers who upbraided me under the misapprehension that I must think I’m so lah-dee-dah fancy pants better than they are with my sesquipedalian vocab, and so on.  I used to see commentary from anonymous onliners in which, when they encountered a word they didn’t know, they would ask each other what it might mean.  I never felt superior to them for that; however, I did think my bookshelf must be in finer condition than theirs by dint of providing a dictionary.

Issues of erudition aside, I have been told to tone down sexual elements in my work that might offend the general American.  I have come to believe that the United States, although perfectly adequate as a home base, is one of the most puritanical backwaters you’ll ever see, bursting with a provincialism and self-righteous dirty-mindedness that beggars comparison – at least, outside Dogpatch or your average emirate.

6) You could easily, as Greg Evans does with LUANN, have kept the characters in 9cwl frozen in time and in high school.  At what point did you decide they had to age, and why?

It wasn’t as easy as I thought it might be to freeze Edda and Amos in time.  It may have to do with some inner drive to see characters develop temporally, to grow in complexity, to go somewhere that satisfies.  I decided, possibly in 1995, that Edda needed to have a birthday and turn 13, to develop hips, to think vertically.  Once she turned 13, there was no turning back.  The anchor chain was broken.

7) Now that Edie's wartime saga is available in book form, and the first 9cwl strips are out in chronological order, are you going to jump around?  Will you do the Sunday strips separately as many syndicates have done with their artists' work?

We have begun to publish the Chickweed dailies from the very first word, in order.  I might possibly excise the story of Edda, Amos and the Bösendorfer heard round the world (not a bad title, although I was going to call it, “We’ll Always Have Brussels”) and print it in its own volume; otherwise, no jumping around.  I plan to publish the Sundays in their own volumes, more because printing costs make more sense when the signature plates are all in color, or all in black and white.

8) Do you ever find that doodling with character expressions leads to a gag, an entire strip, or even a full story line?

I haven’t had a complete story line evolve from a doodle yet, but entire strips have often erupted from a page full of seemingly mindless scrawls (I say “seemingly” because I’m being kind to myself – they weren’t seemingly mindless.  They were completely mindless).

9) I've seen some of your one-shot gag/cartoons, which are as appealing as your story work.  Have you ever submitted such to magazines, whether The New Yorker or Playboy or Music Today?  If so, have any been published?  Would you consider including them in future books, such as 9cwl compilations?

I’ve published panel cartoons in Yankee, Opus, Punch, and some other magazines I can’t remember right now.  My first submissions for syndication were panel cartoons, and they were rejected outright, although I have to say some of them are really very good.  My proudest moment, cartooning-wise and otherwise, was my first sale to Punch.

10) Many artists, when books of their work are published, included samples of their rough work, doodlings (as mentioned earlier) and examples of how they develop a scene or sequence.  Would you consider including such in future books? 

I certainly would.  I keep meaning to post something on my blog about how, via digital graphics tablet and gallons of coffee, I scribble, sketch, draw, and complete a cartoon.

11) Pibgorn appears in full color, which you do yourself.  Do you find you have to experiment with different colors and shadings until you get what you want, or do you see the final color scheme in your head even as you are sketching the outlines?

I have a color scheme in mind….sort of…..but I find that colors produce in my neurological ganglia a host of almost physical reactions and sensations.  I can look at a picture of a coat from an online catalog, and react surprisingly strongly to the choice of colors available.  When I draw Pibgorn, I attempt  to convey the mood of the moment in the background coloration, if no other details are required; and toward that end I may try out a host of different colors and gradations until they strike that neurological chord.  They don’t speak of my state of mind in general as much as of my state of mind at the instant when I was coloring the drawing.  The next day I might well react differently to the very same scene and choice of colors.