Cecil Castellucci’s stories remind us that we find vulnerability and courage in the face of new situations and obstacles. Castellucci is a flexible writer, capable of expressing her stories through several artistic mediums. Her characters embody the passion, joy, and confusion of those delicate young adult years. Her world-building immerses the reader into the 1930s railways, high school hallways, and alien worlds.
Cecil Castellucci has written books, graphic novels, hybrid novels, and plays. Her works include Boy Proof, The Plain Janes, The Year of the Beasts, and Tin Star. Her graphic novel, Odd Duck, was nominated for the Eisner award, the Joe Shuster Award, and the Sakura Medal. Her short stories and short comics can be found in Strange Horizons, Tor.com, Womanthology, Star Trek: Waypoint, and Vertigo SFX: Slam! Her latest graphic novel is Soupy Leaves Home (Dark Horse Books, 2017). She is currently writing Shade, The Changing Girl, a series of comics (Gerard Way’s Young Animal imprint at DC Comics). She serves as the children’s correspondence coordinator for The Rumpus. She is a two-time MacDowell fellow and the YA editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
I interviewed Cecil Castelluci via Skype on August 8, 2017.
Jennifer Mahoney: Why are you drawn towards the YA genre? What’s important to you about speaking with young people? How do you tailor your art to them?
Cecil Castellucci: The first thing that I love about children’s literature, kid lit of any kind, is that it’s the first time that the person falls in love with a book. It’s the first time that a person falls in love with stories and what stories can do. YA is a little bit separate from that, but the idea of writing for young people: it’s such a vital thing because it’s really where people begin to fall in love with stories. You can ask anyone you want, and immediately, they’ll tell you what their favorite kid’s book was. And I think that’s amazing.
Specifically, writing for teenagers, I find it so compelling because it’s really this sort of moment in humanity where a person is figuring out what kind of a person they want to be, what kind of a human being they want to be, what they think of humanity. That’s really fertile for us writers because it’s when a person or a character is at that their rawest. They don’t have the experience yet, the wisdom of life experience, but they have all of the intelligence and the feelings. Everything is the first time. First love. First betrayal. First rage. First joy. So, I think as a writer, those kinds of characters are compelling because the choices that they make—whether it’s who I go to prom with, do I save the universe—are really a matter of life and death. It’s so compelling.
I don’t think you tailor your art to them. You just write a book, and it just happens to have young protagonists as the main characters. Not to say that adult books don’t have main characters that are young protagonists. I think the only way you kind of “tailor” it—and I’m going to put that in air quotes—is that in a young adult book or in a kid’s book, the things are happening to the kids immediately. And in an adult book, if the protagonist is a young person, usually there’s an adult self-awareness or a nostalgic look-back. So, I think the way that you “tailor” it, quote unquote, is that you make it more immediately happening to the characters with no self-awareness of what the consequences of things might be, because they don’t have that experience, and they don’t have that wisdom to be able to figure it out. Whereas, if you have a young protagonist in an adult book—or a book that’s marketed and categorized as an adult book—you can comment as the author or as “the voice” on the choices that the characters are making; or you can have a sense of nostalgia about it because you’re remembering a more innocent time.
JM: In addition to being a writer, you’ve been in a band and in theatre. What are the differences and similarities between the expressive arts that you’ve been involved in, and writing? Do you use them to express different things?
CC: The thing about stories is that they can be told in so many different ways. I don’t see any difference between being in a band and singing a song or doing a play or when I used to do one woman shows. It’s just a different way of telling a story. A painter can go on a picnic and can bring charcoals or they can bring watercolors or they can bring pencils. And they can paint the picnic. It’ll look a little bit different, depending on which tool they brought with them. I feel like all of these things—music, performing arts, comics, poetry: it’s all like you’re going to a picnic, and you’re picking up a different tool. And the way you’re going to depict that picnic scene is different depending on the medium that you use. For me, stories are all the same thing. It’s just which paintbrush to pick up. Do you pick up a pastel or a watercolor? That’s how I feel about the expressive arts versus the written arts.
…what I love about comics is that they’re very distilled, and they have silence in them. You can have an image that has no words in it, that tells you a thousand-fold more than what you could write about that same feeling.That said, I think that they both inform each other very well, because there are some things that you can do well in theatre or film or comedy or music that you can’t do in books or a poem. You can do different things, and you can sort of play the human emotional zone differently depending on which form you use. What’s nice about having done stuff in a bunch of different forms is that sometimes, when you’re writing a book, you get frustrated because you can’t get across what you want to get across, because the medium is clumsy in one way and elegant in another. By having the option to tell stories in different ways you can say, “Oh, well, I’ll get to that emotional thing that I can’t pay off in this kind of medium in another medium.” One thing I do is I take little acting workshops every once in a while, because I feel that it’s very helpful for the writer; because creating characters, dealing with dialogue—it’s the same thing that we’re doing in books. It’s just that we’re standing up and using our bodies. And I think that as writers, we get very sedentary, and we forget how physical emotions can be and how rooted in the body they are. When you’re angry, you slam or you punch. When you’re joyful, you scream. And these things, we can write them and we can imagine them in our head, and we feel them. But there’s a difference when you’re actually physically trying them out. And I think that can help inform the word when you’re sitting sedentary, just like I think writing can make an actor or performative person take pause for a moment and really think and consider.
JM: During a recent lecture at Antioch University Los Angeles, you mentioned that you started out as a fiction writer, then became a comic-book writer. What influenced you to make this transition? Were there stories you wanted to tell that could be better told through comics?
CC: I’ve always loved comic books. I’ve always thought it was an amazing storytelling device. There’s something so beautiful about it and so fun, deep and yet also carefree because they’re quickly consumed. But they have such gravitas, or they can also have fluffiness. I guess the real big moment for me was—I was living in Texas with a boyfriend, and I went to the comic-book store. I picked up this series called The Deadenders, by Ed Brubaker. It was a title that had young people that starred in it. It made me feel that this is a young adult novel. I can see it. That’s what I want to do. That’s the kind of story I want to tell in comics. I started trying to google how you break into comics, and I couldn’t figure it out. So, I just thought, “Well, this is a mystery, and I’m never going to figure it out.” Because it’s really hard to figure out how to be a writer or an artist of any kind. How do you break in? It’s like, where is the on-ramp? I just kind of put it aside and kept thinking about it. My first novel was about a girl who was obsessed with comic books. And Shelly Bond [an editor at DC Comics Vertigo], happened to have read that book and then called me and asked if I would be interested in writing comics. It was amazing. But it was something that I thought I could do and thought that I could be good at and enjoy and really wanted to figure out how to do, but just didn’t know how to start.
Incidentally, I feel like that about playwriting right now. I want to make plays. So, I was ready when the moment came. But what I love about comics is that they’re very distilled, and they have silence in them. You can have an image that has no words in it, that tells you a thousand-fold more than what you could write about that same feeling. That’s what I love about writing comics. And I think that a story can tell you what it wants to be. And now that I write more comics, I can tell when I come up with an idea. “Oh, this wants to be a comic book or this wants to be a novel.” You just follow that realm. Soupy Leaves Home, which is my newest graphic novel about hobos, is about a girl who runs away from an abusive home, and dresses up as a boy, and rides the rails as a hobo. It seems to me that when you’re coming out of an abusive relationship, Soupy’s relationship with her father, you don’t really have words to articulate what you’ve been going through. You’re just kind of numb and kind of trying to process what the heck just happened and how you can see your way through. It felt obvious that it was a comic book because it would be boring to write a novel where: “And then she was quiet. She just stood there.” It would just be a lot of words to say that she’s not saying much because she’s feeling shut down. Whereas, in a comic book, you can just have her not saying anything. The reader can see that she’s shut down.
The other thing was this idea of dreamy travel in America, sort of walking across America. And the sort of dreaminess of trains. You can express that with words, and you can do a beautiful job. But there’s something about just seeing a train on the tracks when you turn the page. It seemed obvious that that book should be a comic book.
JM: You’ve written comics, and then there is The Year of the Beasts with alternating chapters of prose and comics. How do you determine whether a story should be written entirely in prose or comics, or both?
CC: The Year of the Beasts is a puzzle book. It’s about a girl and her sister, and the prose part is the girl named Tessa and her sister and the boys that they like and the summer and the carnival and [that] sort of idyllic world. And then something happens. And the graphic novel is about a girl who is a Medusa, whose hair can turn to stone, and her friends have turned to mythological creatures, and she just want to be a girl again. She can’t understand why she can’t be a girl. The fundamental core of the story is grief. I wanted to talk about how, when we go through [hormonal changes], people who are surrounding us don’t know how to talk to us. They don’t know how to handle intense grief. They don’t know how to handle intense emotions. They run away. They turn to stone. They stop speaking. So, when we’re going through something that’s super huge, we almost feel like we become a Medusa and that people are turning to stone. I have this idea for this book which talks about grief, and when I got to the parts where I wanted to talk about sadness or about how people were reacting to this person, words seemed clumsy.
JM: You’ve written several pieces, such as Soupy Leaves Home and Shade, the Changing Girl that involve female protagonists being pushed into new worlds. Your characters are pushed out of their comfort zone as they encounter aliens and hobos. How do you think that this mimics reality, the daily life of a normal teenage girl?
CC: With Shade, I think that teenagers feel like aliens to begin with, because their bodies are changing. Thing are erupting like boobs and zits and erections, all these things. I think that an alien being put in the body of a sixteen-year-old girl mirrors a teenage experience in terms of the feeling that you’re going from childhood to adulthood, and you’ve been pushed into a body that you don’t have control over. I think that sort of fits in very well.
I think that an alien being put in the body of a sixteen-year-old girl mirrors a teenage experience in terms of the feeling that you’re going from childhood to adulthood, and you’ve been pushed into a body that you don’t have control over.And I think it’s the same with Soupy. She has to go into a cocoon as a boy. She dresses up as a boy. She doesn’t want to be a boy, but she dresses up as a boy for safety reasons and for hiding reasons, and then emerges as a young woman. I think the other thing that it mirrors is this time where you go from childhood to adulthood, and you’re kind of cocooning. You are a caterpillar, and then you become a butterfly. And I think that’s what happens with Soupy. I think Soupy is addressing the cocooning stage, the hibernating stage before emergence. And I think that Shade is addressing the body horror, the emotional hormonal horror of being a teenager.
JM: In Year of the Beasts, the graphic chapters are in black and white. Is this due to the novel being half in prose and half in comic? How did you determine illustrations for Year of the Beasts compared to your other comics?
CC: There are a lot of different factors that go into that. A lot of it has to do with money, because every single time you hire a colorist you have to pay an extra [amount]; you have to change the paper that you use. The paper in Year of the Beasts would have had to be different than in Shade the Changing Girl and Soupy, which are glossy kinds of paper. I would never have wanted Year of the Beasts to be in color. I think that it’s so striking and so somber and so beautiful in black and white. I think it suits it perfectly. [Compare this to] Plain Janes—which is about an all-girl guerilla art group, about a girl who finds a sketchbook that says, “Art Saves” after being in a terrorist attack. Her parents move her to the suburbs, and she decides to do an all-girl guerilla art group. They do art attacks to make an attack be something beautiful. That book, I would love to have in color. If I could do it again, or if I could reprint it—which hopefully, I will one day—it will absolutely be in full color. Because I think a book about art lends itself to being in color.
JM: In your most recent comic, Soupy is the name of the main character. In the story, there is a special soup called Mulligan Stew. It’s created when all the hobos contribute their own ingredient. The main ingredient is the kindness that each member brings. Is there a connection between the stew and Soupy’s name? Was it important for you to bring humanity to these characters?
CC: One of the things about hobos is that they lived in the cracks of society. I think when you’re a person living on the outskirts or the cracks of society—any group of people who are pushed to those places: you have to help each other. Because everybody else thinks that you’re terrible. And so, you have to be there for each other. I think the Mulligan Stew is one of those things. Me, I have a sad carrot. You have a small potato. But we can put it together, and we can make something great. Hobos had such an amazing culture, and they had this really strict ethical code that they lived by. They really were all about not making it difficult for the person behind you. It was absolutely important to show that, especially because now we have a romantic idea of hobos. Nobody says, “Hobo” and [then] is like, “Oh those dirty hobos.” But back in the nineteen-thirties, people did say that. It wasn’t romantic. It was hard. They were migrant workers who were working and who moved around, who roamed. And that’s scary to people who stay, who don’t roam. So yeah, absolutely, it was important to me to have that society be very three-dimensional. I mean, of course, there were douchebags in that society too, as we know from Soupy Leaves Home. You know, it’s funny, because she does have adult sidekicks and they’re all men, except for Professor Jack, who is closer in age to her. But there were a lot of children on the road. And there were women on the road. I just chose to make it this one group of people. It seemed to me like Soupy, maybe if she had seen another woman on the road who was dressed up as a man for safety, then she could [have confessed] who she really was. And I like the idea of her keeping her secret until the end.
JM: Soupy Leaves Home largely takes place amongst a homeless population. Why did you choose to write about these characters?
CC: I don’t think they were homeless. I think they were home-free, like child-free. You know, a lot of kids ran away from home. In the Depression, the oldest kid would run away from home and become a hobo, become a migrant worker, so they wouldn’t be a burden on their family for food. I just think it was a fascinating society. That’s why I wrote about it.
JM: What was it about living amongst these characters that allowed Soupy to learn and grow?
You can be your own person. And you can move through the world in the way that you want to move through the world.CC: The thing that she learns from Ramshackle and Professor Jack and Tom Cat is that you can be your own man or human. You can be your own person. And you can move through the world in the way that you want to move through the world. I mean, Soupy leaves home because she wants to be a modern woman. There’s not really a place yet for modern women. And there’s no real definition of what that looks like. She really wants to be a modern woman like we are in today’s society, and that doesn’t exist in her time. She goes off with a bunch of people who decide to live life on their own terms, and go by their own code of laws and their own rules. And by the time she gets to California, she figures out how to live in her own skin and how to be her own person, and how to be the kind of modern woman that she wants to be in the world, to be a pioneer in a way. She learns that by being surrounded by people who decide to live life on their own terms. You know, Ramshackle certainly does that. He sees the future that no one else can see anymore, but he sees it pretty properly. You know, he’s an inventor and a dreamer, and he can imagine the future as we have it today. He’s sort of born out of time. And Professor Jack, he’s a young man who wants to learn. There’s a reason why he’s called Professor Jack. He’s smart, and I have no doubts that he’s going to do great, great things in his life. But he doesn’t fit into the made-by-number society. I think they are all the people who just—they’re not born in the right time. They’re ahead of the curve.
JM: At the end, we’re surprised to learn that the wise Professor has not received a formal education. Even though he lives his life on the road, he earned his title because of his passion to learn. What are your thoughts on the value of informal versus formal education?
CC: I think informal education is wonderful. I mean, I think formal education is great. I love it. And I did it. I got my bachelor’s, but I’m a life learner. I think that one of the most important, amazing things about being a human being is that we can still learn all the time. And I think that Professor Jack embodies that. He’s a life learner. I have a lot of friends whom I love and adore, who were punk rockers, and they dropped out of high school and went on the road or worked on a pipeline or planted trees or taught English somewhere. They just did crazy things and wandered about. And then when they were in their early/mid-twenties, they got their GED or they used their life experience and went to college and got a bachelor’s, and they became teachers and professors, authors, whatever. I think that there is such an amazing thing to be said for experience, if you’re open to the world. And I think Professor Jack embodies that.
I do a lot of MOOCs (massive open online courses). I’ll do my dishes, and I’m taking a class at Princeton, listening to lectures. I love it. My gosh, we’ve got brains. Let’s use them.
JM: At the end, Soupy doesn’t want to leave the roaming life. Despite her itch to stay on the road, she has a bigger desire to attend college and learn. She describes college as “roaming down the road of ideas.” Would you say this is more of the kind of freedom she desires, not a physical freedom, but a mental freedom to learn anything she chooses?
CC: I think they both lead to each other. I think that her romancing down the road of ideas does make her physically free. I don’t know if she’s a hobo again. I don’t know if she ever jumps a freight train again. But I one-hundred-percent believe that Soupy becomes a traveler, that she roams the world at some point—or at least does as much as she can.
I do literacy read-aloud with elementary school kids. I volunteered at an elementary school. I feel like even if you’re here, you can be somewhere else when you’re reading. You can time travel. You can go to outer space. You can go twenty thousand leagues under the sea. You can go anywhere. You can be anything. You can be a princess. You can be a queen. You can be a king. A hobo. I feel like they are different sides to the same coin.
Jennifer Mahoney is a Filipino/African American writer in Houston. She is a graduate student at Antioch University where she studies poetry and fiction. She currently serves as an editor for Lunch Ticket.